Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Our New Girls!

We now officially have eleven girls residing in the Total Impact House! (One of the girls is absent from the picture. She was not feeling well.) The last month has been an arduous one for Blake and Pauline as they traversed a seemingly endless mountain of legal and social impediments. Persistence prevailed, however, and six more girls are free from a life of prostitution.

One of the biggest problems we face is the potential beneficiary’s loss of income. The money they’re making via prostitution is often the primary source of income for an entire family. If the girls don’t already have children, they have younger siblings, unemployed parents, or even extended family members to support. Sadly, seizing the opportunity to flee from a life of sexual exploitation is considerably more complex than it should be.

For example, one of the girls in the POH outreach program, regrettably, declined Pauline’s invitation to stay at the house. She is fifteen and cares for her twelve year old sister and ailing grandmother. If she entered the program, she explained, her grandmother would then force her younger sister to start selling herself. Sacrificing her own body in order to save her sister from selling hers, she chose to turn down the offer of safety, healing, and an education. Thankfully, she continues to meet with Pauline for counseling and participates in the outreach program’s activities.

While her story represents the majority, there are girls able to break free. We are grateful for our six new sisters—grateful their circumstances were not insurmountable and they can make the most of this new opportunity.

Welcome home girls!

Monday, November 30, 2009

A Firm Foundation

Several months ago, I was contacted by the President of a company responsible for installing the foundation work for some of the largest buildings, bridges, and utility structures in North America. The name of this company is Case Foundation and their philanthropic objective is identical to their professional one—to lay the groundwork upon which something amazing is to be built.

President Bob Schock inquired of our needs. I told him about the girls in Kampala and how they've been meeting and studying in a makeshift classroom next to the brothel where they work. Our hope has been to procure a building of our own in order to offer more courses and to accommodate the ever increasing class sizes. On behalf of Case, he agreed to help. Thus the new school/drop-in center was initiated.

Much has been accomplished in the last few weeks. Swift actions have resulted from both necessity and enthusiasm. In early October, we hired a broker to locate several buildings for us. When I was there later that month, he showed Robinah, our project director, and me what he had found. One was entirely too far away and double our budget. Another was exclusively zoned for residential use and still another seemed to have vanished completely as we drove for almost an hour looking for it. We elected to find a new broker.

The next morning I was scheduled to leave for Gulu. Robinah phoned the girls to tell them the disappointing news. Before reaching the brothel to teach class, she'd already received her first animated phone call. "We found one! We found one! Come meet us!" The second call came shortly after. "Robinah, we see a space for rent, come tell us if it's ok?"

The girls took it upon themselves to divide into groups and find their school. They'd spent the entire day looking at a number of locations in the area and then later voted on the best one. That evening, I answered Robinah's call and listened as the girls bubbled with excitement and proudly took ownership of their real estate venture and the future success of the school. The broker fiasco ended up being the best thing that could have happened. This vocational school was no doubt theirs. They are the ones that found it and have been faithfully attending nearly every day since.

A large construction company—one that operates massive equipment and drills through the earth's toughest strata, volunteered to help tackle another extremely arduous project—restoring the vulnerable lives and fragile psyches of girls on the other side of the globe. Once again, Case has set the foundation and our students now have something upon which they too can build.

Thank you Case.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Situational Ethics

Mary represents a short-lived demographic. Girls that resort to prostitution in the desperate attempt to pay their school fees rarely make it to graduation day. One world consumes the other and learning to cope with physical and emotional trauma leaves little energy and eventually concern for essays and math tests. It’s supposed to be a sacrifice for a better life—a means to an end, but too often it just means the end of hope and continues to feed the insidious cycle of AIDS, abuse, and abject poverty. Mary doesn’t know the statistics. She does, however, feel the weight of their truth and wants more than anything to crawl out from under it.

I don’t yet know the specifics of her situation. I don’t know if her mother encouraged her to sell herself or if Mary chose to do it out of love and a loyalty to help her mother financially. Either way, their very real lives have been besieged by the complexities and consequences of having to choose survival over rather obvious moral principles. I can’t help but think back to the situational ethics stances I so fervently debated years ago in college. They are now beyond embarrassing.

The more I do this work, the more I realize my opinions don’t matter much. Mary doesn’t need my opinion. She needs my love and compassion. She doesn’t need someone telling her that prostitution is harmful. She needs a way out of it. She doesn’t need to be told that her mother, whom she loves, is a terrible person for imposing or condoning the only way she knows how to pay for her education. She needs to be told there is a better way and we are the ones that can help her.

It’s not about guilt. Showing you Mary’s tears is not geared to shame you out of your Starbucks. It’s merely to present the perspective that’s as neglected as the fourteen-year-old who owns it. Saving her life doesn’t require hundreds of thousands of dollars. It doesn’t require years of medical research or depend on the passing of heady legislation in order to act on her behalf. So who can we blame? We have the reactions that we do, guilt or otherwise, because her story is raw, candid, and unbiased, but mostly—we’re torn because it’s so punishingly avoidable. Two dollars a day puts the ball back in our court and demands an answer from each of us. Are we really going to let this continue?

Total Attorneys has answered no to that question repeatedly. You’ve answered by way of time, talent, resources, costumes, and facial hair. On the day of that interview, Mary got to see the result of all that for the first time. It was in the form of a beautiful building; one that was home to vulnerable girls just like her. My prayer is that we’ll soon hear the story of how the Total Impact House and its programs therein changed Mary’s life as well, and the only “situational ethics” dilemma she faces is in the form of debate at the university she one day attends.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Meet Florence

Searching for the right tailors was more challenging than I’d expected. We spent an entire day popping in and out of the shops that made up the marketplace labyrinth. Row after row, kids played and women chatted over the tickering hum of their sewing machines. I appointed myself the official headhunter and quality control inspector. The objective: to commission five tailors and then pick one or two based on their final products—a one-size-fits-all wrap skirt and a small, simple handbag.

I’ve hired quite a few people over the years, but strangely this felt more like interviewing a babysitter rather than an employee. I mean that in the best of ways. Finished seams, button holes, and zipper pockets became secondary to discerning whom I’d entrust to teach our precious girls. I was unexpectedly protective, even a bit concerned; that is, until I met Florence. Her gentle disposition eliminated my worries. I thought her sweet temperament would be a perfect asset and I could easily picture her working with the girls at the house.

I asked Florence to make me three wrap skirts, each with a slightly different design. She did a super job. After explaining the POH/TI project, she also agreed to teach our girls the basics of tailoring with the wrap skirts being one of their first real design projects. This is set to commence in the next month or two. Whether Florence will stay on indefinitely or works with the girls just long enough to teach the basics, I don’t know. We’ll have to see what works best for everyone. Regardless, I’m happy that we found her and I’m eager to work alongside her in just a few short weeks.

If you are interested in supporting the girl’s training as well as Florence’s small business, you can order one of her skirts for $35.00.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Sarah's Story

Sarah’s Story

*Sarah was abducted by the Lord's Resistance Army in Northern Uganda while collecting firewood for her family. At the age of 13, she was forced to be a sex slave, or as the LRA euphemistically calls it—a "bride". As Sarah recounted her story, she told me how grieved she was to learn that the soldier she was given to had two other wives. This meant she was guilty of polygamy. She explained how prior to her abduction; she was a virgin and "inexperienced in such wifely duties". The soldier would severely beat her after sex for not pleasing him properly. He once beat her so badly that two other soldiers came to her aid. They told him to be patient and show her what to do rather than beating her. "For this," she said, I was very grateful."

One night, opposing forces opened fire on their camp. During the ensuing chaos Sarah managed to escape and fled into the bush. She was met by another abductee and together they cautiously trekked across Northern Uganda back to Sarah’s home village.

Upon reaching her hut, she discovered her entire family was dead save for the “auntie” that refused to take her back. Sarah was told she was now "ruined" and would bring shame to the family name and community. Looking for a place to sleep, she went into town where a group of teenage girls took her in and fed her for a few days before insisting she start earning her keep.

Starving, rejected, and already “ruined”, Sarah believed her only choice was to sell her body if she wanted to live. After several months of prostitution, she no longer cared to. She swallowed some batteries and a handful of aspirin hoping the amount of acid would be fatal. Thankfully it wasn't.

Sarah met Pauline, a POH counselor, last year and was recently selected to move into The Total Impact House. Every day for the past year she would think, “Unless Pauline tells me it’s all a lie and no one cares about helping us…until then, I will choose to believe someone really is building this home and there’ll be a place for me to go.” When Sarah and I met this past September, I got the chance to tell her how much people do care and how proud I was of her for holding out hope. She is an amazing example of triumph over tragedy and she ended our exchange by saying, "I now see why I wasn't allowed to die."

*Her name has been changed to protect her identity.

Monday, September 21, 2009

A Better Understanding

This is the brothel...not exactly glamorous.

Under what circumstances do 11, 12, 13 year old girls ask someone to pray that they get more clients? How is that even possible? Unlike the red-light districts where girls are often locked in cages, or the children that are abducted and smuggled across international borders at gunpoint, the girls in this Kampala slum sat in front of their brothel rooms seemingly voluntarily. It begs the question, why wouldn’t they do whatever it takes to escape this life-style? They have witnessed the demise of their peers—peers whose small frames encased the internal organs fatally destroyed by clients demanding their money’s worth. To put it plainly, they were literally raped to death. The stories are graphic, sickening and real and the question is only answered with more questions. “Where are we to go? What else are we to do?” They ask. Most of them have been forced out by a guardian and are not allowed to return home unless they have money to contribute to the household. So, how can we, as individuals and a collective body, wrap our western, middle-class brains around this global enigma, and more importantly, what can we do about it?

Because there’s an ever-increasing demand for younger and younger girls, there is a supply, and the recompense for supplying the demand is often living one more day. This is something I attempt to grasp, but simply cannot fully. What I was able to see, even through their sadness and dejection, were girls like my own daughters who possess great ideas, creativity, gifts and talents, hopes and dreams—only these girls just don’t happen to know it yet. I saw glimpses of this as they rolled strips of paper into beads then proudly showed me their designs. It is all they have right now, but it’s a start. I mean that literally. Many of them have never even left the slums. They have no comprehension of a life outside of what they see, know and do. There are no words for how humbling it was to sit with a group of girls and women that devoured the opportunity to learn such a basic skill—one that most of us would complain about doing after a good five minutes or so. They sit for hours talking, honing their new craft, gratefully eating the meal provided for them before getting up to sit in front of their room waiting for the evening’s clients.

It’s so fundamental that it’s easy to dismiss - it's just paper necklaces. Yeah, they are cool, but will buying a few alter the course of your life? No, it won’t, but it can someone else’s. These girls don’t require multi-million dollar programs, just a chance to earn some money, get medical treatment and go back to school. As I was writing this, I heard my phone ding notifying me of an email. I just checked it and it’s from Robinah. She writes: “Your visit to Uganda touched our hearts and the girls were so blessed to have you visit them in the slum and the time you spent with us really touched many other lives.” Clearly, my presence represented all of our efforts. I just happened to be the one that was there physically. What we do has profound affects on their vulnerable lives. It’s really rather overwhelming. I promise you - it all matters, what we contribute, and on behalf of POH and the girls we serve...an incredibly sincere thank you!

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Jewelry Like No Other...

Jewelry making is one of the income generating skills we’ll be offering the girls at the Total Impact Home. A group of girls we support in Kampala began making beaded necklaces just this summer. Prior to that, POH has been purchasing these hand-made, beaded necklaces from Janet, a dear woman living in Gulu.

One of our goals is to help the girls earn a professional wage and eventually start their own legal cooperative to manage their jewelry business. It will provide training on how to control their personal finances for long-term success; including budgeting, savings, entrepreneurship, and microfinance. Helping them market their jewelry is just one more way we can promote their success.

Here’s how they are made…

Monday, July 13, 2009

An Eye-Opening Contrast


My name is Jackline. I am a girl of 15 years and am in Senior 2. I am an orphan. Both of my parents were killed and I have brothers and sisters still at home I take care of. They are not in school and have no one to pay school fees for them. They need an education, clothes, care and so many things because when someone is not educated he/she starts doing bad things like prostitution, stealing, becoming mothers when very young and this is not good for them and lost parents is causing all of these.

What I will do after my studies, I will like to help people because I know how painful it is to not go to school, lose parents and relatives like me who passed through this. I will maybe like to be a teacher or a nurse. My friend, I know I have to not tell you anymore because I know you understand. I pray that God blesses you and adds to you more and more and we are so grateful for you.

Yours faithful,
Jackline, age 15
Gulu, Uganda



My name is Savannah. I'm going to be a freshman at Kaneland High School. During the school year, I will be in cheer and track. For track, I run the eight hundred. It's a pretty hard race, but that's okay because I love running. It's one of my favorite things to do aside from being with my friends and family.

I live in Maple Park with my family. My family consists of two sisters, a brother, and my mom and dad. They are all very crazy and very loving. They teach me everything I need to know about life and have inspired me to be my very best. My goal is to succeed at whatever I do in life and they will help me reach my goals.

When I grow up, I am hoping to be a surgical nurse. I love helping people and I'd love to be in the medical field. I know it's a very big dream and will be hard to reach, but I will try my best and know I can do whatever I want to do.

-Savannah, age 14
Maple Park, Illinois


The assignment was simple...write a few paragraghs describing yourself. The results...telling. The goal...to give girls like Jakeline some of the same opportunities and hope as girls like Savannah.