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Changing lives in Gulu, Uganda

by Archives April 11, 2007

This summer, 25 Concordia students are moving to eastern Africa to spend two months volunteering in a country torn by 20 years of civil war.

Through an organization called Concordia Volunteer Abroad Program (CVAP), these students will work with S.O.S. Kinderdorf, a non-governmental organization and orphanage in the community of Gulu, Uganda.

Organized and founded by Concordia graduates Peter Shiefke and Awel Uwihanganye and funded by Concordia students through fee levies, CVAP’s aim is to provide an accessible and affordable opportunity for students to volunteer in a third world country.

Teams of between 10 to 25 students leave every two months to work within the community. The program avoids offering material benefits, but focuses on internally changing and motivating the community to get educated and inspired. One of the CVAP’s main goals, according to Uwihanganye, is to foster “a sense of community.”

Both founders hope that Concordia students will be able to give North Ugandan youth the hope to dream and the knowledge they need to critically assess the situation in their country.

Students are responsible for paying for their flight but receive free food and accommodation. Once in Africa, students work up to five days a week with S.O.S. Kinderdorf. They live in a rented-out wing of the Acholi Inn, a hotel that accommodates most of the Gulu region’s NGOs.

Shiefke believes that if students have the chance to get involved in such a project, they will want to educate others and themselves about third-world poverty and violence.

Elizabeth Couture, a marketing student at Concordia, volunteered with the first group of students under the CVAP banner. She said the experience changed her life.

“Now it’s pretty much all I think about. You come back from Uganda and all you think about is how you’re going to raise money and awareness. I thought I was going to do [the program], appreciate it and that’s it,” said Couture, “I never expected to be so obsessed with it as I am now, it’s kind of hard to ignore now that I’ve been there.”

Couture said students will head out to Uganda with different hopes and goals. “You go to Uganda and you have all kind of expectations, you want to change the world, and you want to make the biggest difference,” said Couture. “[But], when you get there you realize there are so many more factors that are beyond your control that you can’t really change.”

“So you have to work to make a difference and sometimes that difference -you can’t see it- it’s a progressive thing. You have to implement [a] mentality; it’s not a concrete change you can make.”

Couture said now that she is back in Canada, her greatest dilemma is finding people who can relate to her experiences in Uganda. “Nobody really understands because there is no awareness about Northern Uganda, there’s not a lot of media attention,” said Couture. As a model and fashion show organizer, she plans to host a fashion show in September to raise money and attract media attention.

Students in Group Two leave May 3 and will have the opportunity to build on the program framework laid by the first group.

Students can choose to organize and support a community-run daycare where women share childcare, work and salaries. Or they can get involved with the sports and recreational program, like Couture did by organizing the women’s soccer tournament. They team up with local youth to organize and sponsor community-wide games in order to motivate youth to get involved and stay active in their community.

A third program, in partnership with S.O.S. Kinderdorf focuses on “family strengthening.” It involves going out into the community to assess the situation of destitute households, some headed by orphans, and provide them with basic necessities they need to live.

Students are also able to volunteer at an S.O.S. clinic that sees upward of 200 people a day. Students are responsible for talking to patients, gathering medical information and using the newly-implemented computer program to make sure patient information is kept on file and accessible in emergencies.

Another student began to set up a “revolving fund” scheme. Through a series of micro-credit loans, Ugandans are given funding and advice on setting up profitable community businesses. Once the loan is repaid, another entrepreneur is given access to the money.

Under the watchful eye of Uwihanganye and the S.O.S. Kinderdorf directors, students will also be given the opporunity to set up new programs focused on getting youth involved within their community.

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