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.