Local students and teacher learn lessons through Ugandan school
It was in 1995 when Elizabeth Smith, daughter of Wayne and Dawn Smith of Berne, traveled to Uganda on a mission trip. While she was there, she developed a real heart for the Ugandan people. When she returned home, she suggested that Dawn develop a pen pal friendship with a teacher who was instructing children while they sat on rocks under banana trees.
When she returned, she unloaded the burden to her parents she had for those children who, though extremely poor and broken, dedicated themselves to gaining an education. Dawn, a recently retired fifth grade teacher at South Adams Elementary School, suggested that local students foster pen pal relationships with approximately 25 students in the institution.
"The next year many of our students starting writing to them," said Smith. "In 1996 and 1997, all fifth graders had a Ugandan pen pal. Eventually, all students in our middle school had pen pals."
In order to assist with writing on the other end, Smith mailed typewriters to Masiga, a school leader, to help with the writing on the other end.
"Our kids started saying, 'we've got to help them. What can we do to help them?’ We sent them some blankets, clothes and little things, but more than anything else they wanted a school," observed Smith. "I passed around some of their letters for people in our community to read.
"One day I got a call from Phil Eicher at Moser Motor Sales," continued Smith.
"After reading his son's pen pal letter, he said, 'I couldn't sleep. We need to find an organization we can send money through so we can build them a school."
Moser Motors businessmen and people from the Mennonite Church started to investigate the situation. They were looking for an organization in Uganda through which they could fund a school. Through prayer and research, they talked with Berne's Robyn Moore, a missionary in Kenya with World Gospel Mission. Investigation indicated that it would cost $35,000 to build such a school.
Smith was stunned at the energetic cooperation and volunteerism of businesses, churches and individuals in the Berne community. Local churches and members of the Amish community devised such fund-raisers as auctions and marathons. Moser Motor Sales contributed a car for the auction.
"One of the main ways we had to raise money was serve pen pal breakfasts every Friday," Smith said. "In September of 2001, construction began. By March of 2002, they had a huge celebration. The school was completed and dedicated by World Gospel Mission. Because of the local support, it was named the South Adams Good Samaritan School of Bukimwanga. However, by then, Masiga was no longer working for us, so his brother, Peter, was appointed to superintend the school."
But then, troubled waters began to brew with the project. For several months, there were no reports or updates from Peter. Everything was sent by fax at the time.
"Something started to go wrong. We were not getting accountability for the money," said Smith. "I warned him (Peter), I said, 'Peter, I think that you're too busy to run the school. We need to get help to assist with it.
"I said, Peter, this is American money, we need accountability for it," continued Smith. "But Peter refused to cooperate; in fact he got so nasty that World Vision dumped the project. One organization that helped the situation was Franklin Graham's Samaritan Purse, which sent shoe boxes to the kids."
Smith said that those sponsoring the school utilized services of several different missions to keep the school on the road. In the meantime, local kids were really savoring the pen pal letters. She especially recalled how much the writing friendship meant to local student Holly Taylor, who recently got a letter from her pen pan, and Brittany Hancock.
Hancock recently emailed Smith and told her that she is out of college and is working with a group home. She believes that the pen pal exchanged helped inspire her current occupation.
"In the meantime, Peter decided that he was going to take over the school," said Smith. "He forcibly took over the school and put padlocks on the door in 2009. He had nothing more to do with us; he said that the school belonged to him. We went to a Ugandan court many times. We finally won a financial judgment against him, but never received any money from it. We went to court 12-15 times that year.
"Shawn Tyler, a missionary, helped us out. He said, 'don't send another penny or write another letter. It's like throwing your money away,’" said Smith. "Without our money, Peter couldn't pay the teachers and the school shut down. Our fifth graders were devastated when they couldn't communicate with their pen pals. Finally, this past February, we were able to open the school again."
Smith said that it was a profound answer to prayer when Rev. John Ntale, a solid servant of God with Global Youth Ministries, agreed that funds could be sent to teachers through his American office. The school was re-organized and allowed to open once again.
To the delight of local students, letter exchanges have started again between local fifth graders and their South Adams counterparts in Uganda. Many of the Uganda students are starting to learn English.
Smith said that when re-enrollment started at the school, almost 300 children came. In fact, so many students showed up for enrollment that they were jam-packed.
"We are so excited about this. It feels like we've been given another chance," observed Smith. "To see that beautiful school set empty for two years was just so heartbreaking, but now we are thrilled again. We still feel like we are limping along, but we are praying and hoping in faith. We feel that God has a much brighter future for the school."
When asked about her passion for helping others, Smith replied, "I think it came from my mom when I was growing up. My mom took us to a Kentucky mission near Hazard.
"I grew up poor," continued Smith. "Still, we were also taking clothes with those with need, including kids in our church."
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