Posts Tagged ‘Uganda’

“We were just kids just living in wide-eyed innocence, minivan floor like a tenement. We were just kids who believed in more than just dreams, in more than just justified ends to a means” – Switchfoot “Who We Are”

We wanted to help. We did not know what we were doing. We changed the world.

In early 2006, during months a Southern Californian would refer to as Spring, but in Montana the ice is just starting to thaw, I read something that would change my life. The Facebook was limited to college students and prompted status updates (Joshua Fisher is…), so if I recall correctly, it was a post on Shanley Deignan’s Xanga site. There was mention of an organization that had made its way through Nashville advocating on behalf of orphaned children in Uganda. Children in danger of being forcibly conscripted into a guerrilla army comprised largely of child soldiers. I looked up the group online and discovered they had been founded by three kids in their early 20s and had set up their headquarters in El Cajon, CA, the city where I was born.


Walking from Missoula Valley Church to the Courthouse in Downtown Missoula for the Global Night Commute in solidarity with the children of Northern Uganda (April 29, 2006)

I felt reborn in outrage at the plight of these children and responsible to help both them and my fellow San Diegans in the battle. With that sum of knowledge I found myself dialing the fledgling offices of Invisible Children and asking what we could do to help in Missoula.

I learned that Northern Uganda was in the trenches of a 20 year ongoing war that had left nearly two million people left internally displaced, nearly 60,000 of whom were living in absolute poverty in housing camps. Key to the country’s conflict was rebel Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) comprised of and sustained by kidnapped children, forced to commit terrible acts of violence or have these same acts carried out on them and their families.

By 2006, an estimated 400,000 children nationwide, referred to as “night commuters”, were walking from their rural villages into city centers each night in order to sleep in groups, hoping to avoid the fate of the 25,000 children abducted before them. With a quarter of all Northern Ugandan children over the age of 10 with at least one deceased parent, the kids had banded together for self-preservation. Invisible Children co-founders Jason Russell, Laren Poole, and Bobby Bailey had discovered these children on a 2003 trip hoping to make a documentary on the conflict in the Sudan. Instead they turned their lenses toward this true, untold story in hope of making a positive change.

Armed with a rough cut of their documentary, a non-profit was birthed with a goal of providing resources to the “invisible children” of the world, to inspire and empower the “young and young at heart in the developing world.” A three pronged approach of objectives was formed, to build a grassroots awareness of the war in Northern Uganda and the children it was affecting, to empower individuals stateside to engage in direct action and finally to provide aid on the ground in Uganda.


Jaime, Lana and Katie get prepped for the Global Night Commute (GNC)

Action step number one would be to “lay down for what we believe in” by participating in a Global Night Commute. Rain or shine, on April 29, 2006, people were asked to both empathize and make a statement of unity with the children of Northern Uganda by walking in groups to their respective downtowns throughout the United States to sleep overnight and peacefully advocate for the end of the war. Late to the game, this gave us in Missoula approximately one month to plan, organize and execute the event. I was put in touch with I.C. National Tour staffer Genevieve Luippold who could have easily told me that Missoula wasn’t a high priority for engagement or participation, but instead matched my enthusiasm and offered full support in getting Invisible Children on the ground in Montana.

In order to gain approval to use the Missoula Courthouse grounds for an overnight peace demonstration, City Officials informed me we would need the approval signatures of the city’s Police Chief, Fire Marshall, City Attorney, County Commissioner as well as the Transportation/Engineering Department and the Maintenance Department’s Facilities Manager. Undaunted and assisted by the relatively small size of the city, I gained all the signatures over the course of a one week period.

We got permission from the Missoula Valley Church to screen the documentary film twice before the 29th and eventually also facilitated a screening on the University of Montana campus. We ordered t-shirts and bracelets to fundraise and set up a church-wide tag sale, which netted approximately $1,400 in to support the organization and sponsor education for the kids in Northern Uganda. I sent out a press release, made a local appearance on the evening news, and made sure our event information was available on the internet. We made signs, put up posters, rented port-a-potties.

It was a whirlwind. With all the wisdom of my 23 years, I had not even viewed the actual film myself until four days prior to our first screening and two weeks before the Global Night Commute. Taking 21 units in my final college semester and working a part-time job as an Afterschool Program Director for the Boys and Girls Club didn’t leave time for much. Adding the responsibility of coordinating an event of this magnitude wasn’t well advised.

I was stressed out and the stress carried over into my relationship with my wife. Jaime was willing to help to a larger extent, for this to be a joint work, and I had not yet learned how to relinquish control over my what I considered my projects.

I got some pushback from church members who were uncomfortable with the idea of the church organizing a social justice event or screening a film with moments deemed questionable.

I received tough questions I did not know how to answer and pretended to be more knowledgeable than I was, fooling no one. I still recall trying to navigate in a public forum how my support for possible U.S. troop involvement in Uganda differed from my opposition to the U.S. military intervention in Iraq.

But throughout the process we did our best to help. We were encouraged. We grew.

The conversation between Jaime and I about how to balance responsibility and ask for help is one we continue to this day raising four children and being pulled in many different directions simultaneously between family, work, social and church responsibilities.

Where my knowledge of the situation faltered I did research and also learned an important lesson that it is okay and often preferable to admit I don’t have all the answers.

For every brother or sister who was skeptical of our commitment to peacefully demonstrate, I was pleasantly surprised by many more who stepped completely out of their comfort zone to offer support and show up. Even more, I was thrilled to meet the cohort of folks who were eager to show solidarity and lend their support for the cause in the face of their antipathy for the church. I learned when the church expands out of the building to meet needs in the community, whether local or global, new faces who will not approach stained glass stand ready to side with the values of God’s Kingdom.

Missoula, MT Global Night Commute (April 29, 2006) at the Missoula County Courthouse

Missoula, MT Global Night Commute participants (April 29, 2006) at the Missoula County Courthouse

Over 100 people showed up, from as far away as Edmonton in Alberta, to our Global Night Commute in Missoula to offer encouragement, write letters to lawmakers, pray on the hour for the children, share in each other’s company under streetlights and eventually get drenched in our sleeping bags overnight.

I will never forget Lana (McCrary) Miller on the morning of April 30, shivering after little sleep, covered in cold Montana spring rain, saturated sleeping bag in hand, smiling.

We were smiling because Invisible Children had provided us an opportunity to put our faith into action, to start being the change we wished to see. It was an opportunity relished and capitalized on by many, but especially by 20-somethings over the course of a decade of work.

After Jaime and I relocated to Connecticut we remained active in Invisible Children’s work highlighted by participation in another overnight commute in 2009. The Rescue in New York City resulted in Jaime (five months pregnant with Shepard), myself and 19 month old Clara sleeping outdoors with friends, family and strangers in Brooklyn Bridge Park raising awareness for the continued troubles of our Ugandan friends.

Via continued advocacy efforts such as Give Peace a Tri, the #Kony2012 Campaign and the Fourth Estate Conference, a 92% reduction in LRA killings has been achieved in the last three years. 1.8 million displaced people have returned to their communities. 2,659 people abducted by the LRA have returned to their families since 2010. 11 Ugandan schools have been rebuilt and more than 6,000 Ugandan scholarships awarded. Two bills were passed in Congress and signed into law contributing to the peace movement.

Invisible Children's The Rescue in Brooklyn Bridge Park (April 2009)

Invisible Children’s The Rescue in Brooklyn Bridge Park (April 2009) with Karen, Chantelle, Garrett, Jaime and Clara

With so much achieved, as of December 31 2014, Invisible Children has officially closed down their media and movement offices. The focus of all remaining resources and future raised funds will be on only the most essential programs in order to complete the mission of liberating every captive man, woman and child from the LRA.

At the beginning we envisioned a full-length feature film to be released by the end of 2006 and a quick end to Kony, the LRA and the need for night commuting. We spoke of expanding the organization to help all invisible children across the globe. We encountered adversity, personally and organizationally, but all hardships only strengthened the foundation for continued advocacy for the thousands of us who learned alongside each other.

Sometimes our visions do not come to fruition. But in the end, we realize that dreams bigger than ourselves are always worth pursuing. That even if we never reach our initial desired ends, perhaps we plant seeds along the way, means of accomplishing much more.

Thank you Invisible Children. Thank you for your willingness to help. Thank you for inviting our assistance. Thank you for changing the world.


A couple weeks ago, I was asked to facilitate an ice breaker activity for the Ward Street/Manchester Youth Rally and wound up inventing a game in which our youth had an opportunity to win $40 of my money. However, I wanted to raise the bar a bit, so before putting my cash on the line, I decided to do a little research on what $40 could actually do to help someone in need. I stumbled into finding out about Charity: Water and discovered that just $20 can provide one person with clean drinking for 20 years! In under three days, we raised $500, including donations from the kids who won the cash prizes, translating into clean drinking water for 25 people for the next two decades. I wanted to share what I’ve learned about Charity: Water in hope that as we reflect on our abundant blessings, we can give at least $20 to help others simply live.

Scott Harrison, 35, came to New York City at the age of 18 as an act of rebellion. He felt he had spent his childhood serving others, particularly in caring for his severely ill mother who was poisoned by carbon monoxide when Scott was just four years old, and now it was time to serve himself. It wasn’t long before Scott, immensely talented, landed a gig as a “night club promoter” in which he was paid over $4000 a month to drink Budweiser and Bacardi at clubs on a nightly basis while selling more expensive alcohol to models and hedge fund managers. A decade after his arrival to the Big Apple, Scott was living the high life and at age 28 found himself on an expensive drug laden vacation on a beach in Uruguay complete with personal servants. But in a search for deeper meaning in life, Scott had began to study theology and there in Uruguay he experienced a “crisis of conscience” also finding himself a “pretentious jerk” and a “the most selfish, sycophantic and miserable human being.” Scott decided to return to his Christian heritage and felt the Gospel was calling him to a life of service dedicated to the poor.

In October 2004, Scott quit his high paying night club job in favor of a volunteer position for Mercy Ships, a non-profit floating hospital carrying skilled surgeons to the coast of West Africa, in which he actually had to pay $500 a month to cover the cost of his living expenses. He traveled to Liberia as a photojournalist, taking pictures of people who came to the Mercy Ships doctors using their vacation time to perform free surgeries for people suffering from giant facial tumors, flesh eating diseases, severe burns, cleft lips and cleft palates. It was in Liberia that Scott took a picture of and then got to know a boy named Alfred who was literally suffocating from his own face due to a giant tumor. Scott got his first taste of dirty drinking water in Liberia and after he saw people drinking from swamps realized that many of the illness suffered by sub-Saharan Africans can be traced to the lack of access to clean drinking water. In fact, an astounding 88 percent of disease on the planet is directly related to unsafe water and lack of sanitation and one billion people on this planet (1 in 6) do not have access to clean water.

In one year, 40 billion hours in Africa are spent walking to and collecting water, surpassing the work hours that the entire French economy produces annually. Children begin carrying water at age five and bend their spines carrying 40 pound gas cans, the iPods of Africa, with five gallons of tainted water. Women in Northern Uganda wait in lines of up to eight hours on alternate days to get access to water for their families. Not able to afford the coal necessary to boil the swampy waters, they use their dresses as strainers removing some of the sludge, but none of the contaminants such as e.coli, salmonella, cholera and Hepatitis A. People are dying from diarrhea, dysentery, parasites and typhoid.

It was then that Scott Harrison began to think about water as a luxury. He returned to New York City, where someone bought him a $16 margarita and he couldn’t stop thinking about how that same $16 in Africa could feed a family of four for a month. He discovered Americans use 150 gallons of water per person per day, whereas one billion people don’t have access to even 5 gallons, or 1/30th, of that daily figure. At first he experienced a righteous indignation at the disparity, but quickly realized that within this cognitive dissonance lay opportunity. With no money, but a few idealistic friends, supporters and a web designer, Scott launched Charity: Water, a non-profit aimed at ensuring clean drinking water is available to the entire world.

But his ambition didn’t end there. Scott believed the reason many people, young and old alike, were not giving to charity was because they were unsure how much of their money was being used to actually help people. So, Scott took a risk and committed to a business principle in which 100% of public donations would be used to build wells and get fresh water to people who need it. He would use private and corporate donors to fund his staff and operating costs. The venture nearly failed in 2008 when they were raising money for wells, but ran out of cash for payroll, but Michael Birch, founder of the social networking site, generously donated $1 million, buying time to flush out the business plan which has now created a sustainable model that ensures 100% of public donations, your donations, go to help people without water.

The money raised goes toward drilling wells up to $12,000 feet, hand digging wells, protecting sources of mountain spring water, filtering arsenic and other poisons from water supplies, creating rainwater catchment systems and teaching local peoples how to maintain their wells. A typical well costs $5,000 and provides water for over 250 people. The pumps provide a gas can’s five gallons of clean water every 90 seconds and can produce the equivalent of 7 million bottles of Poland Spring every year. For many of the wells, community members contribute their labor digging for six weeks taking ownership of their project.

In short, water changes everything. Water brings hope and life into communities by restoring dignity and time. Health and disease rates plummet once safe water becomes available, and Charity: Water is making it happen. In just four years, over $20 million has been raised through over 100,000 donations providing one million people with safe water. There are over 2,500 water projects that have been completed or are in progress partnering with 22 third world communities thus far and all of this is being tracked using GPS and Google Earth. But there is still so much more to do.

Harrison figured out that if this clean water crisis was measured in time, that the one million people helped thus far would represent only the first 12 days of a 32 year problem. We’ve got a long way to go. But if not us, who? If not now, when?

Every September, Charity: Water asks people to give up their birthdays by foregoing parties and gifts and raising money for the poor of the world. A seven year old child recently gave up his birthday and was able to raise $22,000. Celebrities have gotten inspired as well as demonstrated by Alyssa Milano who raised $92,000 by giving up her 37th birthday. One mom from Iowa, Jodie Landers, was able to raise $300,000 from her church and town. People are raising money by walking across America, running marathons, growing beards out, swimming for charity, playing benefit concerts and your creativity and energy can add to this list. This story began with Scott Harrison, but it is becoming our story one donation at a time, one well at a time.

Check out these videos and the website for more information:

Charity: Water Videos.