Diane Kroska never really thought about Uganda until a parent — who was a former missionary in the village of Budimo — came to volunteer at her school. Kroska is the Media Specialist at Dayton Elementary School in Dayton, Minnesota.
She says the stories she heard about the widespread and enormous needs in Uganda pulled at her heartstrings, and she wanted to do something to help.
Forging a personal connection
She asked her school's principal if she and her students could reach out to children in the East African country.
"We teach character education in our schools, which is compassion, responsibility, kindness, and things like that," she explains, "and I wanted to put it into action."
The principal encouraged her to try. That was five years ago, and since then, Kroska and her students have sent about $22,000 to Uganda.
Not just about fundraising
Diane Kroska has also set up a pen pal program between fifth graders at Dayton Elementary and Ugandan students at Tochi and Coopil primary schools in the town of Gulu.
On her visits there, Kroska says she sees how important communicating with American children has become to the Ugandans.
"The kids take their pen pal letters and read them four hundred times. They'll take their letters out when they're herding the cattle and sit and read their letters," say Kroska. "They have them pinned up in their huts. It's about having a friend that's in the United States and that someone cares about them."
Kroska says having a friend in Uganda has been an eye-opening experience for the Dayton youngsters, as they come to realize that not everyone is as fortunate as they are.
"They can wake up in the morning, and turn on the faucet and they can wash their face and brush their teeth. And they can go downstairs for breakfast and have a good breakfast. They have shelter over their heads that doesn't leak. They know where their next meal is coming from. And they've realized that some things are more important than fingernail polish and hair gel for the kids in Uganda and one of the things they have learned is that for getting out of poverty, you need to have education, and that's important to them, too."
Child Reach Uganda
For the first few years, Kroska's project didn't have a name. It was just kids at Dayton Elementary helping kids in Uganda. Last year, the project became a non-profit, non-governmental organization. It also got a name: Child Reach Uganda.
Today, Kroska has two people in Uganda helping her.
Oweli, 27, is the first person from his village to graduate from college. Kroska met him when he showed her around Uganda. One of his projects is to make sure medicine is available for free or at reduced cost for the people in the Southern Ugandan village of Nagabita.
Jeffrey, 28, works in Gulu in Northern Uganda. The project closest to his heart is helping children who were orphaned and traumatized by Joseph Kony's Lord's Resistance Army, which waged a brutal two-decade long rebellion in Central Africa.
"They are my hands and my eyes and my ears and my feet and we discuss different projects that they're doing and what the need is and I try to get them the funds to do it. I'm not the person that says, 'yes, no.' I trust them and I believe that they know what's best."
To raise money for those projects, the Dayton children make crafts to sell in the school cafeteria, along with T-shirts. Kroska says they try to think of fun ways to bring in money.
"One day a week, it's penny day, and the kids can bring pennies and put them in a big water bottle. And the next day it will be nickels, and dimes and quarters. And then we had dollar day. Kids realize that if they give up some of their money for lunchroom treats, maybe once or twice a week, they can contribute fifty cents to a dollar and that goes such a long way."
This year's fifth-graders raised $3,600 for their friends in Uganda.
"That will send over 100 kids to school for next year," says Kroska. And that includes their uniform because they have to have uniform which is a dollar and a half. Their tuition fees are $24 for the year and the rest goes for their school supplies and books."
Kroska visited Uganda this spring with seven suitcases filled with gifts from her students for their Ugandan pen pals. Each fifth-grader had been given a big plastic bag to stuff with school supplies, toys, and whatever else they thought their penpal would need, or want.
Kroska says she's only just beginning in Uganda. Her future projects include building a community center in Gulu, as well as a library, and nursery schools. She has also been told there is still a great need for access to fresh water, and she wants to help Ugandan women start bead businesses to make money.
Kroska says younger students at Dayton Elementary tell her they can't wait to be in fifth grade so that they, too, can be part of Child Reach Uganda.