STILLPOINT Archive: last updated 07/01/2013

ARTICLE: Getting Personal

Getting Personal: Making A Difference in Uganda One Life at a Time
By Marjorie Overhiser

"I don't know why I have to take this class. I'm never going to use it!" That's what Laurie (McGuinness) Kroll '81 thought about the Economics of Poverty course required for her psychology degree at Gordon College. How could she have known that 25 years later her life would revolve around the subject?

It began with a phone call to the parsonage of First Baptist Church in Bristol, Vermont. James Mutaka, a visiting Ugandan student, wanted to attend church and needed a ride. Laurie Kroll offered the ride, and so began a very special relationship.

Both Laurie and her husband, Michael--pastor at First Baptist--were appalled by James' descriptions of the desperate lives led by people in his home village of Serere. A generation ravaged by HIV/AIDS, orphaned children abandoned to fend for themselves, widespread domestic abuse, civil war and rebel incursions--these remote horrors became personal to Laurie and her family in the summer of 2002.

Statistics can be disturbing--even heartbreaking--but statistics are impersonal and rarely move people to act. Hearing James relate the suffering of people he knew and his own trauma was personal, and impossible to ignore.

The Krolls sent gifts for James' family when he returned to Uganda. He later shared how hard it was to give presents to his own family while surrounded by orphaned children with nothing. James' family shared the few things they had been sent, but there wasn't enough to go around.

"We have much to learn from Ugandan Christians in terms of holding onto faith in the face of suffering," Laurie says. The Krolls felt God was calling them to do something. So they got personal. They started with the congregation of their tiny church. Then Laurie emailed everyone she knew--family, friends, contacts made through involvement with international adoptions--to ask for help. People from the village of Bristol and from "villages" across the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada reached out in love to the little village in Uganda.

What began as a vague impulse to send a little money for food, clothing and books became a burgeoning relief mission. Laurie's extensive involvement in foster care, international adoption and hosting exchange students served as a basis for developing the Village2Village Project (V2V). She envisioned a plan that would take the local culture into account and strengthen family and community ties. "Work in international adoption gave me a support base of people who care for orphans," Laurie explains, "and hosting exchange students taught me the importance of understanding culture."

V2V is built around a unique "kinship program." Instead of removing children from the village to an orphanage, children who have lost everything are given a caring family in a secure, familiar environment. Whenever possible, children are encouraged to remain with their loving, yet impoverished guardians, often frail grandmothers left with little ones after the deaths of their adult children.
V2V uses Ugandan caseworkers familiar with the culture and context of village life to conduct regular home visits and provide medical screening and crisis intervention, counseling and parenting classes. Children are assigned sponsors whose support covers the cost of food, education and medical care. Sponsored children meet daily for a hot lunch, tutoring and educational playtime. A Saturday program provides reading groups, health and spiritual education, and companionship.

V2V also has a sponsorship program for HIV-positive adult guardians, which enables many living with HIV to continue to care for their own families as well as the children in the program.

The emphasis on respecting culture and strengthening the entire community guides the approach to evangelism too. Rather than bring in outsiders to evangelize people, many of whom already have a mature and vibrant faith, V2V looks to develop local leadership and churches. In July 2006 V2V organized an ecumenical pastors' conference attended by more than 200 clergy from throughout northeastern Uganda. Last summer more than 600 children from the community attended vacation Bible school.
The involvement of members of the Gordon College community with the project has enriched V2V. When researching schools in Uganda, Laurie discovered that Dr. Malcolm Reid, philosophy professor, was to be a visiting professor at Uganda Christian University (U.C.U.). She phoned him to talk about U.C.U. and his passion for Uganda. He agreed to serve on the V2V Board of Directors.
Laurie and I were roommates at Gordon, and we've remained close. Our conversations throughout the formative process of V2V showed me that it isn't necessary to have a fully formed plan of action before God can use you. All you need is a willingness to obey, take that first step and trust the Lord to lead. Now I also serve on the board.

The Gordon connections continue into another generation. Last summer Malcolm coordinated a volunteer team to help in the village. Four Gordon students--Meg King '05, Aubrey Fowler '05, Chris Acker '04 and Grant Moxham '04--tutored children, assisted with a medical clinic and helped conduct a women's retreat.

Nikki Klink '07 and Hannah Powlison '08 participated in the Uganda Studies Program through the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities BestSemester Program. They were placed in Serere and were introduced to V2V through "Mama Hellen," James' birthmother, with whom Hannah lived. Now Nikki and Hannah both sponsor V2V children.

And James--he was adopted and became James Mutaka Kroll in 2005. His whole family was in Uganda to see him graduate from U.C.U. last summer.

God loves us through the person of His Son. Christ saves us one at a time. Personal relationships. Individual lives. Village2Village is copying that pattern to bring hope to Uganda.

Marjorie (MacArthur) Overhiser is an executive assistant with New England Equity Group. She also writes for and is the director of the Living Word Players of Dunstable, Massachusetts. She lives in Pepperell, Massachusetts, with her husband, Paul, and daughter, Julia. Marj graduated from Gordon with a B.A. in philosophy.