On a Mission ~ Oregon couple founded Uganda orphanage

Posted September 12, 2011 by Ugandan Diaspora News Team in Charity ~ 4,119 views


On her first night in the land that would become her new home, Carol Higgins wrapped herself in a mosquito net and cried.

A rain that would pound the earth for months was pouring down, turning dirt to gooey mud. The house had no toilet; instead, Carol had to make the trek to an outhouse. Meals sometimes consisted of pineapple and popcorn.

The Higginses — Carol and her husband, Bob — had spent nearly all their lives in Oregon, growing up in the rural east, meeting at Oregon State University and then settling in Central Oregon. They generally didn’t take extravagant vacations.

Yet in their retirement, motivated by their Christian conviction, the couple in 1999 moved to Uganda, a lush, Oregon-sized African nation bordering Lake Victoria that has been ravaged by AIDS and years of civil war.

Uncomfortable and uncertain, the Higginses pushed forward. They helped educate pastors and worked to bring clean water to villages. And within a few years, moved by the plight of children in a run-down orphanage, they founded an orphanage and school to feed, shelter and educate them.

Today, ask Carol, 67, and Bob, 68, how many children they have and they only half-jokingly answer 260. Their two sons and nine grandchildren form their immediate family here, but they also have their Ugandan orphan family.

“It’s probably the most challenging thing we’ve done,” Bob said, “and the most rewarding chapter of our life.”

And now, the Higginses’ story might soon be more widely shared. Bend couple Bruce and Sandy Cummings, who moved here in 2006 after careers in television journalism in Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., spent a year and a half putting together a documentary about the work in Uganda called “Lost & Found.”

They have submitted the film to several festivals, including Sundance, and to PBS. And recently they held a private screening for about 150 people at The Oxford Hotel in Bend.

The Higginses, who are visiting their Tumalo home for six weeks, saw the film for the first time and answered questions afterward.

To the Cummingses, the film is a testament to the power of one.

“The underlying message of the whole thing to me is anyone can make a difference,” Sandy Cummings said.

“The hope is that the story inspires people to get off the couch,” she continued. “Not just to help orphans in Uganda. To just do something.”

Africa didn’t even make Bob and Carol’s bucket list upon retirement.

Before having children and becoming a homemaker, Carol taught home economics for four years at what was then Cascade Junior High School in downtown Bend. Bob taught industrial arts in Bend middle schools for about 13 years before becoming a construction contractor.

On the side, the couple also started leading the small Alfalfa Community Church. In seven years, it grew from just a handful of members to roughly 50 people.

It was after retirement that a friend invited them to a pastors conference in Uganda. They surprised themselves by deciding to make the trip.

“I said, ‘Ah, I don’t think so,’ ” Bob said, recalling his initial reaction. ” ‘We don’t even know where Uganda is.’ “

They were moved by the conditions in a country so different from our own.

AIDS is rampant in Uganda. Subsistence living is common in rural areas. Women spend their days walking hours to and from clean water sources.

Civil war has also been a near constant. In the 1980s, a group of rebels calling themselves the Lord’s Resistance Army began terrorizing villages. The group is led by Joseph Kony, who has been wanted by the International Criminal Court since 2005.

“Their plight is anywhere from serious to desperate,” Carol said of the Ugandan people.

They decided to return to the same conference the following year. When the third year rolled around, Bob converted the garage at his Tumalo home into an apartment. A son and his family moved into the house, and the Higginses went to Uganda permanently.

It all seems a bit naive now.

“We look back and it’s like we had blinders on,” Bob said.

The Higginses worked with pastors and on water projects for several years. “I’d be sitting in a village in a grass thatched hut with a disc player and a cellphone,” Carol said.

Then a pastor took them to visit an orphanage in northern Uganda. They continued to visit. Carol wanted to help them.

But Bob worried. If money wasn’t available for a water project, they just postponed it until it was possible. But orphans needed constant care and education regardless of the status of funding.

“I said, ‘We don’t do orphans,’ ” he said.

Yet they got thrust into it in 2002 when word spread that the children were in danger. The Lord’s Resistance Army regularly abducted children to make into soldiers and wives, and locals heard the orphanage was next.

The Higginses helped hire a truck to get the 78 children out and made arrangements for them to stay at a boarding school that was on break. Soon afterward, they found a parcel of land near Lira and started building an orphanage and school they named Otino-Waa Children’s Village. Otino-Waa means in local dialect “Our Children.”

Those who came to live there had nobody else to turn to for help.

“Most have never had shoes on or slept in a bed or know that people eat three times a day,” Carol said.

Since then, the orphanage has expanded to 260. The waiting list of children trying to get in is 500 deep, the Higginses said.

Some children just show up at Otino-Waa’s gate with nowhere else to go. Relatives seek to get other orphans in, as they already have four to six children of their own and are unable to also feed nieces and nephews after parents die. Occasionally parents try to sneak their own children in, the Cummingses said, knowing they will be cared for and educated.

Otino-Waa is supported by a nonprofit organization the Higginses set up called Path Ministries International. It collects most of its funds from Americans.

Sandy Cummings’ first exposure to the Higginses’ world was through a friend who owns a framing shop in Bend. She had an unusual job she thought Cummings would want to hear about.

The works were colorful, detailed paintings of animals and vistas and children, created by Snake River Correctional Institution inmates in Eastern Oregon. They had heard in a prison chapel service about Otino-Waa and were trying to raise money for Uganda’s orphans by selling the art.

Cummings, a senior West Coast producer for “Dateline NBC” who left to form her own company, had been looking for the right project. The story became “Lost & Found,” which focuses not only on hope found for the orphans, but also hope for the prison inmates who endeavor to help them.

Yet she and Bruce Cummings, who also worked for decades as a journalist for NBC, said they went into the documentary with a reporter’s skepticism.

“We vetted these people,” Bruce Cummings said, thinking of others who at times have been less than honest. “We’ve been spun and lied to and jerked around for a really long time.”

What impressed the Cummingses, they said, was Bob and Carol’s openness. On site in Uganda, they were allowed to speak with anyone and go anywhere on the premises.

The Cummingses also said they believe Bob and Carol have engendered respect. They have not only built the orphanage and school, but they have stayed to see it through.

During the visit, the Cummingses also witnessed life there for Bob and Carol. They must have armed security 24 hours a day. Meals often consist of beans and cooked cornmeal. Sometimes they have electricity, sometimes not.

Most significantly for Bob and Carol, they are living thousands of miles away from their children and grandchildren.

“They’re making such a sacrifice,” Sandy Cummings said.

Bob and Carol leave for Uganda again on Monday.

They have no plans to live regularly again in the U.S., although they discuss that they might not always physically be able to do this.

Until then, they want to keep expanding their projects. An effort is rolling to get a medical clinic established. And they would like to add three classrooms and an indoor amphitheater at Otino-Waa, although that project has yet to lift off the ground.

And Bob and Carol bring each grandchild to Uganda after their 11th birthday to experience that world.

Yet even after 12 years in Uganda, it’s not easy.

“I don’t like my compassion being pricked all the time, because there’s only so much you can do,” Carol said. “There’s always another need, and another need.”

Yet the couple believe that if they can transition from regular lives to such work, others can as well.

“We’re blessed in America,” Bob said. “We’re a prosperous land. Even in a recession, we have a lot of prosperity.

“Everyone has their own passion,” he continued. “Maybe your little passion could make a lot of difference.”

Article Source: The Washington Examiner:

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Ugandan Diaspora News Team

Ugandan Diaspora News Online is an independent, non political news portal primarily aimed at serving Ugandans who work and reside outside Uganda. Our aim is to be a one stop shop for everything Ugandan and the celebration of our Ugandan heritage.


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