1. Changing rural communities, empowering lives!
“Imagine a flower pot. You fill it with good soil and plant a seed. You water it and fertilize it. You give it sun and fresh air, and tend to it carefully to see that it’s flourishing. Now imagine a crack in that pot. You continue to give it water and fertilizer, but now, no matter how much water and fertilizer you pour onto the fledgling plant, its foundation has been compromised. And the plant will not grow” This is the analogy Master Isaac Ssamba, Executive Director of Beacon of Hope Uganda, uses to describe the mission of his organization. At its heart, Beacon of Hope Uganda is designed to create that strong foundation for children and youth in Uganda, many of whom have gone through most of their lives without it. Beacon of Hope Uganda empowers children and youth to identify and develop their dreams and own their future. They do it through computer training, teaching website development and design, data collection and mapping, computer networking and repair, video applications and leadership training. After having challenges attaining formal education himself Isaac was challenged to create a program that would inspire and empower Mukono youth. “We started Beacon of Hope Uganda because there was a need for it,” Isaac explains. “There is a huge problem with education in Uganda. We have an over 60-percent dropout rate in high schools. We needed to find something that would be not only interesting but lasting…that would show them a future. We decided to use technology to do it.” BoHU’ training and employment programs are open to youth between the ages of 14 and 23. Isaac points out right away that staffers at BoHU never refer to their trainees as kids. “Kids are children,” he explains. “We expect a lot from our trainees, so we start off by treating them like the young adults they are.” Youth come to BoHU from a variety of sources. Some programs are designed for students and held after school, while others are focused on youth who have already dropped out of school. Some trainees even come from parole programs or on a one-day release from a detention center. Regardless of where they come from, trainees start off with a formation plan. Trainees are asked to identify their goals – like finishing high school or finding a job. Then they’re given a plan and the tools to achieve those goals. For some, the tools include literacy lessons. Within the organization, the goal for trainees is to earn a job working for Beacon of Hope Uganda, providing services to its client. Changing the mindset Isaac makes a clear distinction between “getting” a job versus “earning” one, and it’s a major focus at Beacon of Hope Uganda. “It’s a problem in the mindset of many youths when they come to us,” he explains. “They don’t have that inherent understanding that you don’t just ‘get’ a job. You have to earn it. “For a lot of our youth here in Uganda, the perception is that ‘If I have a job, then I should get paid. If I work, I should get a raise.’ That’s like saying ‘If I go to school I should pass, and if I do my homework, I should get an A”. We have to teach them it doesn’t work that way.” Isaac says this mindset is fostered at an early age, especially for people who live under the poverty level. “People love to create programs to help poor children. It’s appealing. So these kids grow up accustomed to being given free things or free education programs. They develop a sense of entitlement. Then once a kid becomes a teen, there aren’t as many programs for them, plus there’s a different level of expectation, and life can be difficult.” Through well-intentioned public programs, even University tuition is free for youth who qualify. The concept is noble, says Isaac, but it can have the opposite effect. He uses the following example: “Say a student gets 1,000,000 Ugx a semester, and it only costs 700,000 Ugx; they get to keep the remaining 300,000Ugx. Some look at it as if they’re getting paid to go to school. And many say they won’t go unless they get paid for it,” he explains. “There’s no incentive built in that they have to earn a certain grade to keep the money – it’s just given to them. That’s where we come in. We’re teaching them that all that stuff is nice, but this is the real world. If you want a job, a house, nice things, etc., you have to work at it.” It’s a tough concept for the youth who come through the organization and a tough job for Isaac and his staff. But the rules are clear, the path is set. And time after time, given the right tools, trainees exceed Isaac’s ever-rising expectations. Minding the gap Isaac says a major obstacle to success among older participants is housing. “Many of these youths have a living situation not conducive to their success. There are no parents, or the living situation isn’t safe. This is a major hindrance.” It’s all about the foundation. Like the flower pot, Beacon of Hope Uganda is helping to mend the cracks and help the soil retain its nutrients so the plant can grow. “We talk a lot about dreams around here,” says Isaac. “What trainees learn immediately when they come here is their dreams are achievable, dynamic, real and effective. You can see them. We’re teaching them to gain and retain the knowledge they’ll need to succeed, and that no matter where they come from or what obstacles they’ve encountered, they’re capable. Dreams are the stuff of hope.”