December 1 - 2
Adventures in Traveling During a Pandemic

From departure in Pittsburgh to arrival in Entebbe, Uganda takes about 24 hours. During a pandemic it takes about 30 hours and 2 days of prep on the front end and a day of prep to return. In our case, each country had a different set of requirements: Brussels required PCR test with downloaded verification code (which when activated revealed various website including one selling guns); Rwanda required contract tracing documentation, proof of vaccination and a negative test result; Uganda required negative covid result within 72 hours of first departure, proof of vaccination (including yellow fever), negative antigen test given upon arrival (for $30). All ten bags arrived intact but Maranie’s drone was confiscated by TSA (returned upon departure). Overall, international travel is more stressful but manageable. 

November 28

Kevin began his journey a few days earlier so that he could spend time with Eddie. He messaged that there are some additional requirements related to contact tracing needed. Recent reports on the Omicron variant is a bit concerning, but I don't think that we can allow this to paralyze us especially when we are all vaccinated, boosted and will be wearing masks and social distancing. It will feel strange not to hug our friends that we haven't seen for so long, but we are all taking precautions as best we can based on what our healthcare professionals are advising. 

Yesterday, the learning materials that were selected with the help of a dear friend who is a vision itinerant at PPS arrived. The success of our fundraising efforts allowed us to order these for this trip. Braille flash card for numbers and words, stylus to teach writing in braille, braille paper and educational games are a few of the items that we'll be taking to SMILE. Two more suitcases to pack with donations - more dresses from Exquisite Bride and clothes from a service learning project.                                                      Susan

VCAYA led a team of Carlow University faculty, student & photo journalist for a visit in December 2021.

Team members:

     Susan O'Rourke
     Kevin Spencer
     Deborah Mitchum
     Aimee Zellers
     Kaylee Goblesky
     Maranie Staab

Improving the lives of vulnerable children

December 3

Ronnie, our driver, collected us in the morning after a brief night’s rest, loaded up the van  including suitcases filled with donations. Our first stop was meeting Harriet to give her bridal gowns for her rental business – donations from Exquisite Bride in Pittsburgh – thanks to Jeannie Brody and another wedding dress provided by Tom Trinchero. Next up: distributing eyeglasses in Harriett’s community.

We first met Harriett in 2014 when she attended a meeting with mothers of disabled children. She was also an active member of the Advocates of Children with Disabilities (ADC) that went on to form Noah’s Ark School for Children with Disabilities. Heaven’s Family, provided her with a small business start-up loan a few years ago which she used to create a tailoring business which includes renting bridal gowns that we bring in addition to making new clothes. Her staff made Kaylee a dress in the time that it took us to distribute 83 pairs of glasses. We are always accepting donations of eyeglasses because the more we have, the better chance we have the best match for someone. 

November 26, 2021

Preparations for our return to Uganda are almost complete! Twenty-eight months have passed since our last visit and we are looking forward to collaborating again with our partners. Lots of hoops to jump through – vaccinations, visas, covid tests – and we understand that a curfew is in place limiting travel to day-light hours. Our schedule is packed having been developed with the utmost optimism. 

Below is a preview of what we hope to accomplish:

Maternal Health Conference

The Covid-19 pandemic paused our work, but most significantly schools have been closed for almost 2 years. Children living in rural communities don’t have an option for remote learning. It will be years before we completely understand the fallout, but we are hearing reports of disturbing rates of teen pregnancy. It is not unusual to see pregnant 13- and 14-year-old girls. We will be meeting with AVCR to plan a maternal health conference scheduled for July 2022 which will address a variety of concerns around pre- peri and post-natal care.

Silver Memorial Inclusive Learning and Education Center - SMILE

For the past year, Kevin and I have been meeting regularly with our partners at SMILE. These virtual meetings are not without technical challenges, but they allow us to develop comprehensive plans for reopening the school in February 2022. The time was used to recruit children, complete professional development of staff and raise funds to support tuition and improve accessibility.

Thanks to Andy Wolfinger, Erin O’Rourke, Sean O’Rourke, Kaylee Goblesky, Carlow students, Grist House Brewery and Howard Davidson with Glass Run Road, we had our most successful fundraising campaign to support a variety of projects (over $9,000!). We will be overseeing projects to improve accessibility. Thanks to our generous donors, twenty-five students from impoverished families will be able to attend the school in 2022.

Oukut Health Clinic

Mothers of children with disabilities living in Oukot Village organized efforts in 2019 to build a clinic to provide healthcare, unfortunately the pandemic halted these plans. Shannon White together with her mother, Sharon Stamper have stepped forward to support the development of the clinic. We will meet with local leaders and healthcare providers to assess the building and bring some supplies. Our goal is to have the clinic operational in 2022.

GAP Program & Study Abroad

Carlow University is developing a GAP program for young adults interested in engaging in service before going to university or starting their careers or who need a break from traditional higher education. The GAP program is Mercy-centered and will launch in Fall 2022 involving preparation on campus before embarking on a month-long service experience with our partners in Uganda. Bright Kids Uganda Children’s Home has opened a school on Victoria’s Island in Lake Victoria providing an interesting inclusion for the GAP program.

Much of our efforts will involve finalizing plans for the nursing study abroad program scheduled for July 2022. Our goal is to build our programming to increase impact across the region to improve the lives of vulnerable children.

Posts will be made here while we’re traveling when we have the bandwidth!