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Students at New Life School in Uganda (Doug Henderson)

U.S. churches unite to support Uganda school

Annual sponsorships seek to boost nutrition, sanitation, supplies, and teacher salaries at school started by Ugandan UU minister.
By Michelle Bates Deakin

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At the New Life School in Kkindu, Uganda, more than 100 kindergartners crowd into a single dirt-floored classroom.

When Cathy Cordes, executive director of the Unitarian Universalist Partner Church Council (UUPCC), first walked into their classroom in May 2010, she was struck by the children’s demeanor as much as by their number. “They were as polite and joyous as they could be,” she recalled, “and they have nothing. A blackboard, copy books, and pencils, and that’s about it.”

The children stood and sang a song of welcome to Cordes and her co-travelers, George Davenport and Doug Henderson, members of All Souls Unitarian Church in Tulsa, Okla. The Tulsa church has a partnership with the UU Church of Kampala, Uganda, which was founded by the Rev. Mark Kiyimba, who also started the New Life School and a nearby orphanage.

As the three Americans toured the school, it occurred to them that it needed a partner, too. Indeed, they realized it would take more than one partner to sustain the K-8 school, which has 500 students and nine classes. To fully support the school, they decided, it would require nine partners.

On their trip, Cordes, Davenport, and Henderson began to discuss an idea that has become the Partner School Consortium. It’s a program that brings each of nine U.S. congregations into a partnership with a class at the school. The congregations will provide annual funding, and members of the partner church and students at the school will exchange letters, photos, drawings, and information about life in America and Uganda. “It’s a sponsorship, but it’s about making friends around the world,” Cordes said.

The New Life School was founded in 2004 by Kiyimba, whose Kampala church is about a three-hour car ride away. Many of the students are orphans who have lost their parents to HIV/AIDS. The school is staffed by 13 dedicated teachers, whose salaries are far below what their colleagues in Kampala earn.

A single cook feeds the school’s children, most days preparing a meal of watery, white gruel. By improving the food, Davenport said, he hopes partner congregations in the United States can improve the students’ lives. Davenport is the chair of the Partnership Church Committee at All Souls in Tulsa. He is also treasurer of the UUPCC, which, he notes, has been trying to come up with alternative forms of partnership to allow more UU congregations and individual UUs to “dip a toe in the water” of the international UU community even if they are not able to enter into a full partnership with a church in another country.

So far, the Partner School Consortium has three congregations, and Cordes says that four more are close to signing on. To join the consortium, a congregation pledges to commit $2,400 a year for eight years. In return, each partner congregation is matched with a class with which they will forge connections as the class moves forward through the grades each year.

Two steering committees will help guide the process. Each partner congregation will have a representative on a U.S. steering committee. And the New Life School will also have a steering committee to budget and manage the program funds.

All Souls Tulsa was the first congregation to join the consortium. It has since been joined by First Parish in Bedford, Mass., Shawnee Mission UU Church in Overland Park, Kans., and the Unitarian Church of Sharon, Mass. “Each church is committed for the $2,400 for seven to eight years,” said Davenport. “It provides the community with the chance to make long-term relationships.”

The money from the partner congregation is not intended to pay all the costs of the school, said Davenport. But he said it is intended to provide a substantial portion of the school’s funding in a way that is “reliable and repeatable.”

Though the steering committee in Uganda will decide exactly how the money is spent, Cordes imagines it will support teachers’ salaries and help improve the school building, which does not have electricity or indoor bathrooms. Some money may be used to purchase sports equipment. Henderson photographed children playing soccer with a ball made from plastic shopping bags and string.

Cordes also imagines that partner churches can send children’s books. English is the official language of Uganda, and the New Life School is taught in English. She envisions future teacher exchanges, which she thinks would be enlightening for American and Ugandan teachers alike.

The education system is based on an English model, and consists primarily of copying and rote learning, Cordes said.

At the same time, Kiyimba has introduced discussion forums that give students and staff a chance to discuss values and religious tolerance. On the day of Cordes’s visit, she attended an afternoon discussion session, which the school holds every other week. The topic for the day asked people to consider the idea that there is one true faith—true or false. Students, teachers, and visitors all weighed in. “It was a lovely way to talk about values and faith in a very nonthreatening kind of way,” said Cordes. She learned that two weeks prior, the topic had been whether a man can be head of the household if his wife earns more money than he.

Donations to the UUPCC through its website may be designated to support the New Life School. The UUPCC will begin dispensing payments from the consortium in August. Cordes is hopeful that additional churches will have finalized their commitment to the school by then.

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Students gather at the New Life School in Kkindu, Uganda, which is run by the minister of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Kampala. Photo by Doug Henderson.

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