Running an Orphanage on Heart

"But I knew we could figure it out. I sold pancakes in the morning and laid bricks in the afternoon, and I would save every single penny for my and Rita's education."

Julian looked completely defeated when he walked into the hotel room. He fell back onto the bed. I had five minutes left on a skype call. I mouthed, “Are you okay?” He shrugged. He looked like he was about to cry. I told him I’d be off in five minutes. He heaved a big sigh and laid back.

“What happened?” I asked frantically as I hung up my call.

He didn't respond.

“Did you get robbed? Did you get lost? What happened?” I was really worried.

“It's just so bad out there,” he said, sounding pissed.

“What was bad?” I asked.

He shook his head. “All of it.”

“Did you visit the orphanage? Did you meet Winnie?” I asked.

“I did, and it was bad. The kids didn't have mattresses. They were sleeping three to a bed on the springs. I felt really sick when I walked in,” he said. “It was the middle of the day, but it was pitch black.”

“Why was it like that?” I asked.

He told me it was like nothing he had ever seen or imagined. He told me that Winnie was our age, and she had rescued all these kids off the streets because couldn't bear to see them starving to death. They had nowhere to go and she didn't have anywhere to put them, except this dark building next door to her home in a slum of Kampala, so that is what she did. Julian said the kids only had one meal a day and that Winnie and her husband, a pastor, were pulling whatever they could out of their paychecks to provide for the children, even though those paychecks were less than $100 a month. After a couple years of struggling, they registered as an organization so that they could solicit financial help to send the children to school, but they had only recruited two donors. Winnie said that giving the children an opportunity to go to school was the most important thing.

Julian stood up from the bed and started pacing. His voice grew louder. “WHY would she take them in if she couldn't support them? What was she thinking?” He was shaking his head. “Isn't there someone who will take care of these kids?! They were just playing with bits of metal in the dark.”

We went to the pizzeria downstairs and talked for hours, trying to figure out why she would start an organization if she had no funding and no way to care for the kids. We questioned her motives. But Julian kept repeating, “The hard part for me is knowing that the children were in a worse situation before.”

Winnie wanted to host a storytelling workshop for the community at the orphanage, so we went to meet with her the following week to discuss. During that week we made it a point to find ourselves context for Winnie’s orphanage. In Uganda, there are 10,000 orphaned children living on the streets, 5-year long waiting lists for orphanages, and a government that doesn’t seem to lift a finger to help them. So the burden is left on the shoulders of hundreds of big-hearted people like Winnie, who, although they have almost nothing themselves, are willing to share what they can.

Winnie had been taking kids in need into her home since she was a young girl herself. The first child she took in was a girl named Rita, whom she met while waiting in line at a hospital. Winnie was there with her mother; Rita was at the hospital alone, waiting in line for HIV meds for her bedridden mother. Winnie offered Rita some of the pancake she had been munching on, and she and her mother accompanied her home. Winnie said she will never forget standing in Rita’s house while Rita’s mother begged them to take her. “I have no door, someone will come in and rape my girl, she is hitting puberty,” she pleaded. “I am scared. Please take her. I cannot care for or protect her.” Rita came home with Winnie that very day, and that was the beginning of Mama Africa International Organization.

“My situation wasn’t good either,” Winnie said. “My parents couldn’t afford my school fees. But I knew we could figure it out. I sold pancakes in the morning and laid bricks in the afternoon, and I would save every single penny for my and Rita’s education.”

Winnie’s story made her make a lot more sense and made her motives clear. But, she was so busy scraping by, that she had not focused on the bigger steps to make her organization more sustainable like setting her organization up to receive online donations and putting together a plan for how to solicit funds to educate the fifty children that were living with her. When we offered to help, she jumped at the chance. We discussed the importance of using her personal story to convey the overall message of the Mama Africa Organization. We helped her fill out grant proposals and scholarship applications to attend conferences and trainings on running an organization. We recognized that however sketchy the orphanage appeared to us at first, it wasn't and what Winnie really needed were advocates, partnerships and people who were willing to sit with her and help her gain the skills she needed to make her orphanage sustainable.

It was a slow process, and required massive amounts of patience on my part due to my do-a-million-things-a-minute lifestyle. One afternoon, while I was sitting with Winnie who was filling out an application, I had to really hold myself back because I wanted to just take the computer and do it myself. The application process was tedious, difficult to understand, and she and I were having misunderstanding after misunderstanding due to our language differences. I felt bad that I was getting annoyed. I had to tell her. I said, “Winnie, this process is so slow and I really apologize if I am being short.” She said in response, “Heather, I know you could do this for me in seconds, I see you sitting there teaching me how to fish. I have never had fishing lessons, so let’s just take a minute to give you flowers!!!” She cupped her hands like they were tulips and shook them back and forth and with a big smile shouted: “FLOWERS for Heather and her patience!” I laughed, “Thank you Winnie.” We ordered another coke and kept trudging.

Two months since that day at the cafe, I am happy to say that Winnie has been accepted to the GlobalGiving Challenge, a contest where if an organization can recruit 50 donors to give a sum of $4,000 in the month of April then that organization will become a permanent partner of GlobalGiving and will be able to use their platform to receive online contributions forever. Winnie is doing it, she has raised $775 from 17 donors in less than two weeks and is working around the clock to recruit more donors. Winnie has built a Facebook page to support her effort. I have been skyping with her almost daily, giving her some tips and tools for fundraising, but mostly just to give her “flowers” and to tell her how freaking proud I am of her.
I am happy to announce that Winnie reached her goal on Global Giving and raised $4890 from 59 different people - PROUD! Here is the link to her GlobalGiving site:

This is one of 30 untold stories of launching a global project (with my boyfriend, Julian) about love, story telling and connecting change makers.

Read all 30 days here:

Throughout Vietnam, South Africa, and Uganda, we engaged with 650 everyday people working to make the world a better place to share their stories. Inevitably, there were parts of our adventures we couldn’t tell while on the road, because we were a start up trying to prove our merits as a serious social change project or because of nervous families monitoring our journey. But the truth is while we worked passionately to bring our dream project to life we also had an adventure of a lifetime. Here are the stories behind the stories of the Million Person Project:


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