Monday, December 26, 2016

Local residents receive gift of world awareness

Susan Davies of Freehold Borough and Gerry Mogan of Middletown joined Sylvia Allen of Holmdel, founder of the nonprofit Sylvia’s Children, at the village of Mbiriizi, in Uganda, Africa, with the mission to help improve the lives of over 1,000 children and bring the gift of holiday cheer.

In return, they received the gift of world awareness. The group of 11 volunteers included six nursing students attending the Globe School of Nursing in Minnesota.

Upon their arrival, two drivers greeted the group of eight women and three men and were eager to share their wealth of local knowledge and served as experienced guides for the duration of the trip, which concluded with a two-day safari excursion.

When they arrived at the Mbiriizi (pronounced “breezy” with an “mmm” in front of it) Primary and Day Care School, which the foundation built, Davies was immediately struck by “how much good a school can [do to] transform a community.”

Courtesy of Susan Davies

The group arrived at the school on Nov. 13 and spent six days working with the mission. “The visible level of poverty was shocking. It was easy to fall into despair, but I also saw how strong the human spirit is in its will to survive. People had so little, and yet they were gracious, generous and welcoming,” said Davies.

Mogan said, “[There was] horror at the conditions that the Ugandans lived in, the lack of infrastructure, or social networks to provide aid.”
There are 1,080 children attending the school, with 25 percent of them being orphaned due to the AIDS epidemic in the village of Mbiriizi. Sylvia’s Children fully supports all of the orphaned children, who live in the dormitories the charity built and supports.

In addition, the charity supports the community by providing jobs. For example, there is a nurse that lives on site, an assistant nurse and approximately 35 teachers, who raise chickens which provide the main source of eggs for the village. There is also a pig farm, coffee crops and other produce grown, which employ local farmers.

The clinic, constructed by the charity is open to the community. The volunteer medical staff that accompanied Allen consisted of five nursing students from the Globe School of Nursing in Aitken, Minnesota. Allen, a one-time Minnesota resident, maintains close ties to the community of Aitken.

For medical professional Christina Sprunger, the trip was a life-changing opportunity, and the medical staff treated 275 people from the community. Many people came to the clinic with complaints of aches and pains that long-term solutions could not cure, such as aching backs, because they must carry 200 pounds of water every day just to survive.

“Admiration for the people who got up each morning and went to work doing what they did the day before — the tenacity, the strength, the willpower — you knew these people worked hard for what little they had, and you could only try to imagine what they could accomplish given the tools that we in America take for granted,” said Mogan.

According to Davies, “We take so much for granted here. Most people have to go elsewhere for their daily water. I saw 10-year-old children carrying five-gallon cans of water. That’s almost 50 pounds. They have to do this a few times every day.

“If these people are lucky enough to have some sort of running water in their homes, they still can’t trust that the water is clean. Really, all our infrastructure [systems] that we don’t think about — garbage collection, sewers and septic systems, electricity, decent roads, floors in our homes, glass in our windows — they are … taken-for-granted luxuries.”

For Sprunger, having the opportunity to serve others on a medical mission was one of the most fulfilling experiences she had. “I cannot begin to explain the phenomenal learning experience this has been for all of us. A quote from Mother Teresa encompasses the spirit of those I met in Uganda: ‘Be happy in the moment, that’s enough. Each moment is all we need, not more.’

Even in the absence of the things we think we need in life, we can choose to be happy in each moment, regardless of the circumstances. “Happiness in the midst of challenges was a spirit exuded by all we encountered on this journey, and I want to thank Sylvia Allen and the beautiful participants for making this experience memorable and truly life changing,” said Sprunger.

During a visit to the village, the group was shocked to see families of eight in the village, living in one small room, dirt floors that were meticulously swept daily, glassless windows, no electricity, no running water, and yet the people were welcoming, smiling and gracious.

Davies’ lasting impression of the trip to Africa was that it was “no longer a faraway place” and she could never dismiss it as just being “somewhere else.”

Courtesy of Susan Davies

The mission and vision of one determined and selfless woman, Allen, whom the children of Mbiriizi fondly call “Grand Sylvia,” has changed the lives of so many and provided an eye-opening gift of awareness for the group of volunteers.

“When Sylvia walked into the hall at the school, the expressions of excitement on the children’s faces [were] the closest I’ll ever come to being in the entourage of a rock star,” said Davies.

Davies shared her insight on the mission. “Sylvia’s Children’s support of the children at Mbiriizi Primary School is a drop of pure water in an ocean of need. But I was able to see how that drop sends ripples that transform the community, the country and, ultimately, the world.

“The best examples were the five medical students, graduates of the Mbiriizi Primary School, who returned to work with our group’s medical team in the clinic. These were six people who would not have had the opportunity to excel with our Sylvia’s Children, and now they are on a path to better others’ lives.”

Mogan noted the students’ enthusiam and energy. “Joy at the enthusiasm, energy and eagerness in the eyes of the young students at the Mbirizi school — you wanted to hug each one, feed them, clothe them, teach them. You saw … their eyes and realized [they] were no different from the children we see in our homes and towns in America — no different, not lesser, as good, and as deserving of opportunities we give our young, and more than able to do amazing things given the chance.”

One of the most memorable and heartfelt moments of the trip for Davies and Sprunger was the last day when both women were in a group singing songs and learning hand signs with a crowd of smiling children. The day before, they had their Christmas party with gifts for each child, a feast and a class graduation ceremony. The last day was celebrated with a cake, which is a special treat for the children, and some tearful farewells, never to be forgotten.

Allen had the itinerary meticulously planned, and the trip rounded out with a two-day safari trip through Africa’s vastly expansive landscapes. The group rode in two safari trucks, with local drivers who served as guides, through open, untouched wilderness in the heart of Africa and took in the beauty of free-roaming elephants, baboons, hippos, lions, wart hogs, mongoose, crocodiles, water bucks and many beautiful species of birds.

“The trip was one full of differing emotions — wonder at the amazing countryside and wildlife, some of which got uncomfortably close,” said Mogan.

Mogan further reflected on the trip. “The level of poverty was shocking, and it is hard to prepare for that, but the experience has been one that was humbling, and it was truly a mission of the heart, helping those that needed it so.

“It was hard to return to America with these images in mind and not feel that we live on a different planet, one that we are a part of only by sheer luck of the draw. It opens a whole new perspective when viewing the crises with displaced people all over the world and how hard so many nations try to paint those refugees as different from us, when they are us!”

Davies added, “We hope by sharing our journey and experience, we will inspire others to help those in need. Every penny that is donated to this charity goes right into the school and makes a difference in a human life.”

To learn more about the charity, visit

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