Langley humanitarians are inspired to help determined children

t seems some Americans cannot travel to Africa without falling in love with its people.

It seems some Americans cannot travel to Africa without falling in love with its people.

That’s something that is most assuredly true of certain Whidbey Islanders. In the past two years alone, the Record has published several stories about locals who have fallen in love with the people of Zimbabwe, Tanzania or Nigeria, and have gathered resources to help them with various needs, whether it be in building wells and schools, teaching at a daycare center or helping to give voice to a village’s fight against the corporate greed for oil.

South Enders Betsy MacGregor and Charles Terry, too, have recently become charmed by a certain population of Africans.

While traveling through Uganda this past October, where they were doing humanitarian work, the couple stopped off at a small orphanage near the capital city of Kampala that a friend had asked them to visit.

“We were prepared to see something heartbreaking,” MacGregor said. “But here were these kids who just swarmed around us with joy, happy to have visitors. They captured our hearts.”

They had come to the place where a group of five young Ugandan men had founded a home for about 70 children who were orphaned or relegated to a life on the streets.

Countless children had been dealt this same fate after Uganda suffered years of human rights violations and insurgencies under a militaristic government ruled by Gen. Tito Okello, who murdered civilians and ravaged the country’s predominantly rural population.

The country now maintains a somewhat questionable republic under the leadership of Pres. Yoweri Museveni, but is no longer at war.

The orphanage is called MLISADA, an acronym for music, life skills and destitution alleviation.

It was formed with the help of Ashoka Fellows, a group of social entrepreneurs who help the poor find innovative solutions to change patterns in their society. The Ashoka organization works in more than 60 countries around the globe in every area of human need.

The group of young adults in Uganda were trained by the Ashoka Fellows to form a Creative Facilitation Team to help them realize their dream of housing their fellow Ugandan youths and giving them resources to move forward in their lives.

In 2007, a benefactor gave the team a house with a yard, where these five young men took it upon themselves to feed and house 70 orphans, from 5 to 17. Another 80 or so street children visit the house daily for food and support.

But the goals of the young Ugandan team go beyond just housing and food. The team runs week-long camps, called intensives, on youth empowerment and building community through arts programs.

In fact, the young adults and children of the MLISADA Orphanage have created their own performance troupe, a circus of sorts, that includes a brass band, an acrobatic act and an ensemble of teenage girls who perform the native dances of Uganda.

“They are so resourceful,” Terry said. “They manage to get what they need given to them. They create opportunities for themselves. They are not hopeless.”

Terry and MacGregor were impressed not only by the talent and the potential they saw at the orphanage, but by the fact that although these youths were victims of what the average American might call a devastating existence, they were happy to make the most out of what they had.

“They were teaching themselves to play the tuba and the trumpet because those were the instruments that were given to them,” MacGregor said.

The group has a musical director and combines traditional and modern music, dance and circus to create a show which they can sell to events organizers.

Terry and MacGregor were inspired to help. They created the foundation Seeds for Hope to provide grants to orphanages and grassroots community projects in Africa and elsewhere.

“We met with the leaders of the orphanage and asked what would be the most meaningful way to help,” MacGregor said.

The main goal, she said, is getting enough money for food and also keeping the water and electricity going.

The group shares everything with each other, even hunger. If they run low on food, they all eat less. If there is not enough food, no one eats, she said.

“The interesting thing is, you see it is not begging,” Terry said. “It’s more like engaging. It’s very loving. There’s a lot of hugging and appreciation that you are there with them. You are compelled to want to help their cause because they are so resourceful.”

Recently, the orphanage was able to hire an adult woman from the village to act as a house mother for the girls who live there. But the team would also like to one day bring a teacher to the orphanage as the children do not have access to a school.

Other items the orphanage is working toward acquiring are computers for the household, a van or bus to transport the performers to events and new uniforms or costumes as the MLISADA Brass Band and Company strives to create a professional show that could provide the orphans with a steady income.

The team is also working with high school students in England who have already renovated the house and are now set to help create a working garden.

Other resources the MLISADA envision for themselves are creating pottery, beaded jewelry and other crafts which they could sell.

But they need help.

Terry and MacGregor will return to the orphanage in May bearing gifts and monetary donations.

In preparation for their return visit, they have been inviting support from friends and local businesses, and the response has been a wonderful example of the generosity of the Whidbey community, MacGregor said.

“Despite the sad and sometimes horrifying life experience that many of these Ugandan children have had, the joyfulness they express when people take an interest in them is so uplifting, and their resilience is quite amazing,” MacGregor said.

“Our vision is to engage their inherent creativity in making their orphanage one of the most wonderful places imaginable to grow up in, rather than a sad substitute for not having a family of origin. We think it’s quite possible,” she said.

Additionally, Terry took a series of photographs at the MLISADA Orphanage and of scenes of Africa and its wildlife entitled “Children and Wildlife in Africa.”

The photos will be on display at 1504 Coffee in Freeland through May. An artist’s reception is from 6 to 8 p.m. Friday, May 1.

All proceeds from the sale of photographs will go to Seeds for Hope. Contributions to Seeds for Hope are tax deductible and can be sent to Seeds for Hope, Betsy MacGregor and Charles Terry, 2904 Doc Savage Drive, Langley, WA 98260.

1504 Coffee is on Highway 525 in Freeland next to the Texaco.