December 7

We needed an early start to cover a lot of ground to Soroti and on to Oukot Village to attend a planning meeting for the clinic and to arrange for our visit with our nursing students in July 2022. Thanks to Shannon White and her advocacy, Sharon Stamper (Shannon’s mom) has donated the funds needed to supply the clinic with necessary equipment to ensure that visiting nurses have the materials needed to provide healthcare to the people living in this remote village. Stephen arranged for a general practice physician, Alice, to join our meeting. It is essential that we understand the local practices and regulations. For instance, a clinic must be registered with the government to receive free medicines. Dr. Alice has agreed to begin this process, but in the meantime, nurses can examine patients in the newly built hut. Shelving will be installed in a room of the main community building to serve as the pharmacy. It is secure and has a window for easier distribution and will be outfitted with solar panels to power refrigeration for vaccines and other medicines. The community is busy making bricks for a more permanent structure once the clinic is officially registered.

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. 

Each little black spec is a huge spider! 

December 6

The climb up to Sipi Falls with all of our luggage was a bit much for our van, but Ronnie and Kevin figured out that the engine was just overheating and we eventually made it in time for the Coffee Tour. Alex, ever the manager, arranged for our Boda rides – somewhat terrifying for me but a highlight for other team members. The coffee tour has expanded to include grinding and tasting this year. I’m pleased to report that the coffee tree that I planted a few years ago is taller than me and producing beans. Prestogeories in the Strip in Pittsburgh sells coffee from Sipi Falls and I encourage everyone to support this community by stopping by and purchasing these Arabica beans. Isaac (Alex’s brother) has joined the Ugandan army but we were able to stop by and say hello to their mom. She had given me a large bag of beans last time which I used to make chili. Unfortunately when I pulled them out of my cupboard a month later some worms had hatched and I had to throw the rest away. Obviously there is a reason why we’re not supposed to bring agricultural products into the US.

As always, a fantastic hike to the falls, a glass of wine during sunset, wonderful dinner at the lodge. 

December 11

Travel day!  ‘How long does it take to get from Mbale to Entebbe, Ronnie?’ ‘About 3 and half to 6 hours.’ After 8 hours, a stop at KFC and the craft market, we arrive back at Banana Village. 

Thanks to Kaylee Goblosky and students in my Special Education Foundations class, funds were raised to provide 15 mattresses and blankets for children with disabilities living in Oukot. 

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

December 12

We begin our day visiting Victoria who has arranged a meeting with the head teacher at the Kennedy Secondary School. We discuss collaborations between the school and Carlow University. The head teacher will identify a Masters level teacher who can deliver a college level course for credit. Future plans include enrolling students in online classes with the potential to recruit international students to attend Carlow.

Noah’s Ark moved to the old dorms of BKU. Their well needs to be repaired and given our successful fundraising, we are able to fix it immediately. The children seem happy but the slope of the area is not ideal for the children who require wheelchairs for mobility. Angel is looking for a new location but in the meantime, the kids are safe. Our student nurses will visit here in July. 

December 8 - 10

On July 1, 2014, VCAYA laid the foundation for the Silver Memorial Inclusive Community Learning Center (SMILE). We have learned a lot about things that we never realized that we needed to know. It took 3 years before the roof was installed (2016) and another 2 before we realized that our partners needed help in developing a management plan – one in which tuition provided salaries for teachers, a cook and a business manager. All children have been living in their communities without attending schools for the past 2 years. Schools will reopen in January 2022 and SMILE has enrolled 40 students in Primary Level 1. Many of the students have sensory impairments (blind or deaf) and will benefit from having access to education.

The Suds for Sanctuary event held at Andy Wolfinger’s home in Pittsburgh raised around $10,000! This includes tuition for an entire year at SMILE for 25 children. 100% of the funds raised goes towards our projects and this year we were able to:

- finish 2 classrooms with plaster and top coat on the floor,

- ramps for easier access,

- a veranda (to support the building and improve access),

- installation of 12 windows and 3 doors,

- install solar panels (we rejected the panels made in India based on advice from Patrick in Nicaragua so we are waiting for ones manufactured in Germany)

- wiring for the entire building, converter and battery which will enable us to install laptops (donated by Mark Spencer) with JAWS software (screen reader for blind students – together with a grant from UNICEF through Freedom Scientific), install outdoor lighting and plan for a handwashing station.

Our contractor, John was a godsend! He hired about 18 skilled workers that worked through the first night and surprised us by finishing one of the classrooms in one day. We plan to work with him as we complete our future projects.

Much to my surprise, Aimee Zellers, professor of philosophy at Carlow, also builds furniture – a helpful craft for our project.  She designed a desk for 3 children based on an observation at James and Rachels school. We found a store selling lumber in Soroti and purchased a saw and nails. Aimee drew a crowd of willing participants and began to train Opucet community members on how to build a desk.

This successful endeavor sparked the idea to build a large box to hold the learning materials that we brought. A vision itinerate teacher at PPS helped us select key items to bring for teaching Braille which will be secured in the box.

The community of Opucet is making three huts for the teacher (Stephen), the cook and the business manager. Some of the children attending the school will need to stay because they live too far away and the community will provide them with a sleeping area.

Always looking ahead, we began to plan for July 2022 when we hope to install rain gutters a holding tank and improve sanitation. The latrines are in horrible shape and are not sanitary. Steven from Stefro engineering will develop plans to build a latrine with four pits (2 girls, 2 boys) a shower and a changing room for girls.

These days at the school were long and hot but filled with fun activities with the children. 

Improving the lives of vulnerable children

December 14

Covid testing in the morning produced negative results for everyone! The monkeys at Banana Village were busy stealing our nuts and chasing each other. A trip to the zoo – really a sanctuary for sick animals – completed our day before starting the long trip home. Exhausted but totally satisfied by all that we were able to accomplish on this trip. Thanks to all of our families and supporters! 

December 13

We spent the day on Victoria’s island with the children from BKU. George has made some improvements and seems very much aware of his surroundings. He needs a solid stander to develop his lower body strength which will also require some type of bracing for his feet and legs. It is not clear how this can be arranged given the lack of resources in Uganda. I feel certain that if George had access to medical interventions at the Children’s Institute of Pittsburgh he could increase his independence. He needs SLT, OT and PT together with a tech eval for positioning and augmentative communication device. A clean environment would be helpful as well – a cut on his finger was infected. Debbie provided first aid so hopefully this will improve over time. 

December 4

As I stepped out of my tent at the Nile River Explorer Camp, I noticed the largest set of spider webs I had ever seen! Hanging throughout the web were at least 25 large, black spiders that I could easily pick out knowing that there were probably 3 times as many tucked into the bushes. By the time we arrived the night before it was dark and because we were exhausted from travel, Aimee and I decided that we could just pee outside the tent in the middle of the night rather than trekking up to the hill. Luckily, Diana tells us that spiders in Uganda do not bite.

Before we headed out for the day we checked in with Minette and Billy, our hosts at the NREC. We first met them in 2014 when they managed the Sipi River Lodge and were pleased to see that they were still in Uganda. Living through the pandemic while working in the tourist industry has been a challenge for them. A local uprising, animals taking over the camp and an 80% reduction in salary has taken a toll on this family.

We arrived in Bukedea to meet with James and Rachel to plan the maternal health conference scheduled for July 2022 and were surprised to see two school buildings on the field where we held Watatos Got Talent in 2019. Schools have been closed for 2 years due to Covid, but they will open a private primary school in January 2022. In order for the school to be accredited, they need to have a functioning clean water well. VCAYA will drill a well on the site in July 2022 thanks to a donation from a Rotary club in Ohio. 

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. 

December 5

Our first stop was to a village, Ajessa, to meet with community leaders and to examine current water sources. Thanks to a donation from Kyle O’Rourke, we will begin drilling in July 2022. Hitting clean water is not always a given but we are optimistic for this village of 850 people – mostly children who will benefit from access to clean water.

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!


Rachel taught us how to make chapati and served us lunch – Kevin and I were honored with the gizzard. Our visit to Chodong and Kanyanga to check in on the wells we drilled there in 2017 provided some good ideas about protective fencing. It seems that planting bushes around the well is more effective than building a fence due to termites. Who knew?