My return journey to Atin started back in Canada in June, when I purchased my plane ticket to Uganda. I was returning to Uganda for the fourth time, after a long absence away (one year and a bit, which actually felt like much longer). It had been a difficult year, and I longed for the warmth of the Equatorial country, including the comfort of close friends and loved ones there. Soon, the time came when I was landing down in Entebbe airport again. The same feelings of excitement, awe, hope and immense gratitude came to me, just as I had experienced them before.

Not long after re-settling in, plans were made for the journey back to one of my favourite places in Uganda, as well as one of the country’s best kept secrets- AtinAfrika. Atin has a sort of magic about it. Lives are transformed there. The love and compassion that drives the work at Atin are infectious and tangible. More than just a set of values and a mission statement, Atin brings to life the idea that everyone deserves opportunity and that no child is a “lost cause”.Atin does not give second chances because there is no such thing there. The door is always open.

Image

I have seen this in children like Jimmy, who return to the streets because of a variety of reasons- maybe they didn’t feel ready to be at Atin, or maybe they found home life difficult after resettlement. Despite the cause, no child is turned away when they enter through the compound door for the second, third or fourth time. Some might view this as regression- a sort of backslide for the organization and for the child. However, it is quite the opposite. It is indeed success. Atin is that reliable, safe and accepting place for the child. The child can return with the knowledge that s/he is worthy and has not been forgotten. This is an accomplishment for both the child and Atin. It speaks to the courage and perseverance of the child, and to the special nature of Atin.

Image

For me, as it is for many children, Atin is a place of refuge and solace. Amidst all the motion and noise that goes on there, there is serenity and calm. Every time I enter into those compound walls, I feel happy and at peace. When the children run up to greet me shouting aunty, I feel I belong and know that I am in a place where I am loved. However sad I feel when I leave again, I take comfort in the fact that the door to Atin is always open.

Auntie Laura xo

 

 

A dear friend Paige sent me the most amazing book. She mailed Morris and I each our own copy from Colorado to Uganda. It is one of the most priceless gifts I have ever received. My copy is dog-eared, the text is underline, highlighted, there are doodles all throughout the margins. It is well loved. The book: Tattoos on the Heart by Father Gregory Boyle, a Jesuit priest who founded Homeboy Industries which works with gangs in East L.A. Lira is definitely not East L.A. though in a touch of poetic irony people here do call it LA. And the street kids we work with are certainly not the same as the gang members from Homeboy Industries. But there are similarities and parallels. Too many to count, so I reckon you should just read the book yourself.

Image

I read the book again and again for inspiration. Each time I learn something new and my heart grows a smidgen bigger. I am certainly no Father G, but I tell you I can think of nobody better to look up to.

My obsession for this book is well-known, so much so that another wonderful friend, Kirsten, sent me a podcast of interviews with Gregory Boyle, himself. And this part of the interview, this simple question and its humble responds renews me with purpose each day. Maybe you too will see the beauty…

The interviewer asked, “How do you get up every day and smile at these kids who do drugs, sell drugs, murder, steal?” Father G replied, “I would rather stand in awe of the burdens these kids bear than stand in judgment of the way they bear them.”

That is how I feel about the kids at Atin. They have done things that I cannot imagine. They still do things that I don’t approve of or understand. But each day I have a choice, I can sit in judgement and presume that I know best, or I can have the grace to say ‘Wow, look at the load they carry.’ and appreciate their struggle each day to become the best guys and gals they call be. Like Father G, I choose option B.

Image

This is a love story. No, no not what you’re thinking get your minds out of the dime-store romance novels. This is a love story between Jimmy and I.

Image

Last week I was with a group of people and someone asked me a rather simple question, “Why did you guys start Atin?” I could think of a million reasons; Morris had a dream, we met some amazing kids, but for me in many ways it bottles down to… Jimmy. It was love at first sight. He stole my heart (and my food, but that is a story for another day).

So this is why I call it a love story. Because it truly was love at first sight. He charmed me with his charisma and his giant smile that splits his face in half. His baby blue puffy coat was the icing on the cake.

Image

Mind you like all love stories this one has its ups and downs. We took Jimmy off of the street 2 years ago shortly after I returned to Uganda. Complicated family issues made it impossible to resettle him immediately so he went to day school near Atin and came home to us every afternoon. He spent 8 months with us and earned his nickname, “Mr. Ridiculous”. When Jimmy was resettled the moment was bittersweet. All of us at Atin would give each other wry, knowing looks…we missed him. But we reminded ourselves that this was his chance to start a new life back home.

We failed. Two months later Morris and I saw Jimmy on the street again. He wouldn’t even look us in the eye. We starred at him in shock. I can honestly say at that moment my heart hurt so much I could barely breathe. I wanted to chase him. To yell at him. To shake him until he went home. Morris just smiled patiently and said, “Wait, he’ll come to us.”

Patience is not a virtue of mine, but I waited. Begrudgingly. Months passed and I didn’t see Jimmy on the street anymore. In fact, I kidded myself that he had gone home by himself.  Then out of the blue Morris called me this spring. He simply said, “Someone wants to talk to you.” It was Jimmy. He made his decision. Just like Morris said, he came back to us. All Jimmy said was, “Hello Auntie. Forgive me.” Nothing to forgive.

Life has come full circle and love and destiny have run their course. Jimmy is now at Atin. He grew almost 3 inches while he was gone. Those 3 inches stretched him out and made his knock-knees more pronounced. He would play soccer with the other kids and his knees would, well, knock. He would cry and be unable to walk without pain for days.

Image

Jimmy doesn’t know his birthday. So this year I shared mine with him. We are now in the process of fixing his legs. In June 2013 both legs were operated now he is undergoing the long rehabilitation process. Jimmy is no longer knock-kneed. He gave me renewed hope that with love anything is possible. I gave him straight legs. I think I got the better end of the bargain. Like I said. An unconventional love story.

Chelsea xo

Faith restored.

Posted: March 6, 2013 in Uncategorized

There are quiet moments. This is one of them. I sit in silence in the office at Atin. The sounds of the world outside are muted to a low hum because the fan beside me is running at turbo speed, evidence of my own vain attempt to survive the intense heat of northern Uganda. The hot air that whips around me is somehow a reprieve from the sweltering heat.

I am tired. It has been a two year struggle to get Atin off the ground. Two years of choosing this life over any other. Two years of thinking maybe next month something magical will happen to take away the worries, the stress, the fears of failing these children. 

Yesterday it happened. It wasn’t a miracle or a million dollar cheque but it was magical and precious, a shy little boy in a pair of converse sneakers.

Morris and I walked to Atin, slowly dragging ourselves there in the mid-afternoon heat too tired to even pretend to make small talk with each other. There had been some discipline problems with the boys and the house needed simple things like water tablets, cough syrup and toothpaste. 

Wrapped up in our thoughts we literally almost knocked over Solomon and and his little sister Lydia.

Image

Solomon came to Atin in 2012 and was resettled last summer with his family. His parents, both peasant farmers, could not afford school fees from their children and Solomon had come to town to the street with a get rich quick scheme on his mind determined to get school fees like so many others before him. What he found was glue to get high, garbage to keep warm and cold nights full of empty, hollow dreams. 

Image

The Solomon that we first met has disappeared. This Solomon is a beacon of light and hope. For the 2 terms that he studied in his P2 class he remained in the top 10%. He knows what it means to get a second chance and he is determined to succeed. 

Seeing Solomon once wasn’t enough. Today we went to the village to check on him at school. My heart burst with joy. In his yellow shirt he truly looked like a ray of hope in the classroom. A quietly confident boy with a future ahead of him.

Image

Today the exhaustion is gone. The stress is gone. The uncertainty is gone. All that remains is a smile and thoughts of Solomon. Mother Teresa was right, “I have found the paradox, that if you love until it hurts, there can be no more hurt, only more love.”

I am a book worm. I always have been. Books have always been my ticket to traveling the world as seeing different people and places. When I was a kid I used to hide in the closet with a flashlight so that I could read late into the night. I also ate extra carrots to protect my eyesight. Which of course failed but did create a lifelong love affair with carrots!

Seeing the kids at Atin look at the colorful pages of a book makes me heart sing. I watch the way they carefully turn the pages and look in wonder at the pictures. I know that regardless of whether or not they can read they are still reading the pictures and creating beautiful stories.

Image

Felix is my book worm soul mate. I have seen him reach out and stroke the cover of a book. He can read materials in Leblango and the few books we have he reads over and over again. The pages are dog-eared, the covers are tearing but he doesn’t mind because the words jump out of the pages and he can bring them to life. The smile that lights up his face is priceless. It tells a tale of joy. It tells a tale of wonder. It tells a tale of pride.

Image

Dear Morris and Hudson, thank you for finding this incredible boy and bringing him home to Atin. His future is bright. He is going to take this second chance and run with it. He is going to BE the change I wish to see in this world.

~Atin Afrika Foundation: Restoring Hope to Children

Standing in the middle of a massive pile of garbage surrounded by street kids, I am in awe. Chelsea and I are at the “corridor,” one part of Lira town where you are guaranteed to find street kids. The pile consists mostly of plastic bags, corn husks, and used liquor bottles, a great place to scavenge if you are a street kid. I watch as Chelsea simultaneously diagnoses injuries, tells kids that if they know what is good for them they will stop sniffing glue while we are there, congratulates the kids that are telling her about new endeavors at school, and informs the group that her or Uncle Morris would be back tomorrow to ensure the sick children got treatment. All the kids know Auntie Chelsea, some are new, some are old, and some have returned after finding other lives too difficult. As the sun began to set, these kids gathered around us with no place to sleep. Atin Afrika attempts to address this gap in the social system. This gap makes it very difficult for street kids to reintegrate back into society and reach their full potential.

Image

These kids at the corridor are tough, Atin Afrika is not. Two days there and I was hooked. A very astute colleague of mine often points out when he sees people who know how to love. He says, “they are lucky, they have so much love to spread around.” That is what I see at Atin. In Morris and Chelsea and their wonderful helpers, Grace and Dennis, I see a team of people that is willing to continue to love all the children they can. When a child goes home to be resettled they look towards the door for the next fragile spirit they can hopefully help rekindle. The dedication to the kids at Atin is all encompassing. It is not a job, it is a life. And it is not always easy. Running Atin includes new children often running away, pushing back against either the structure and rules, or a lack of drugs they have used in the past to numb themselves. It includes seeing kids you worked so hard to rehabilitate back on the street, because their families cannot afford a book, pen, or three dollars in exam fees to send their child to school. It includes watching a kid, pulled back to the street by addiction, showing up at the gate high on glue and in tears, knowing it is wrong, knowing he can’t help himself, and knowing the only place he can turn is Atin.

Image

It is not always tough, and there are certainly great rewards. But Northern Uganda is a tough place, and sometimes it is difficult to convey the challenges people face here to other people around the world. The children that we met on the garbage pile have few places to turn in Lira, and no one offers a place to stay overnight. If you can’t make it at home living in abject poverty, or are chased away by your community for one reason or another, there is nowhere to go. You look to the support of the other children in the same position as you and turn to theft and addiction in order to survive.

It is through the generous support of many people around the world that Atin is able to offer a reprieve for kids that are just as deserving as any other. The children show up hardened and defensive, and return home filled with empathy and a sense of responsibility. If you support Atin Afrika, it is one of the best ways you could be allocating any type of contribution. If you don’t, start, it is one of the best investments you will ever make.

Through all of these challenges the team at Atin faces, they do not flinch. A lot of people become involved in their communities; few grab their communities by the scruff of the neck and jostle them back to life. Atin is jostling. Lira is similar to many other Ugandan communities in that there is too much need and not enough adequate services. Chelsea and Morris have answered this by becoming Auntie and Uncle, and have given the kids who have nowhere else to turn a home full of laughter and learning.

Image

They say a picture says a thousand words. I say two pictures say a single word hope.

Proof: This was Janol when he arrived at Atin in March with badly beaten with both arms in casts.

Image

Now take a peak above and see Janol now. Note the cheeky grin! The biggest gift you can give a child is hope. And of course love.

Image

Janol was resettled in May and now he and his brother Gerald are back with their family in Amolotar. Amolotar is one of the poorest districts in Uganda and in a recent UWESO study it ranked 316 out of 320 districts in East Africa for literacy and numeracy among lower primary school pupils.

We want these boys to be the exception to that…not the rule.

Janol is rocking grade 3 and is at the top of his class. Gerald is struggling to succeed in primary 4. (the language of instruction in P4 shifts from Lango to English)

Image

It costs us $20Cdn to pay for a term of public school. What to make a difference? Consider making a donation towards Janol’s education, $20 would pay for school for term 3 and $40 would ensure that both he and his brother Gerald finish the year. $60 would pay for both of them to complete term 3 and ensure that they get a meal at school every day.

That’s worth more than a new t-shirt…right?

If you are interested in sponsoring one or both of these boys for term 3 email chelsea@atinafrika.org or message us on facebook.

Peace & love from Atin Afrika