BURRILLVILLE – Burrillville school’s reading specialist Amy Dos Santos’ summer “vacation” was different from most educators. She spent 10 days in Uganda, giving aid and hope to orphans.
“You go believing you will have an impact on the children you work with, but, really, you are impacted by them in a tremendous way,” recalled Dos Santos, a 1999 Burrillville High School graduate and Uxbridge resident.
The trip, sponsored by Lifesong Church in Sutton, Mass., took the volunteers to Nawaka, Luuka District and Jinja, remote villages on dirt roads outside the main thoroughfares. There, Santos, along with 10 other volunteers, taught lessons from the Bible, along with crafts, team building activities and a variety of other instructional lessons designed to help lift the spirits of the orphans housed there. Uganda has over 2 million orphans with no foster care system.
Improvements were made to the limited housing for the orphans, including providing window screens to help protect the children from malaria. The group brought underwear, socks, small toys, and candy, which they wrapped up at one point, handing them out as gifts to the orphans on a makeshift birthday party for everyone. They also made improvements to the living spaces, including the cooking rooms where caretakers spent a lot of time preparing food. Normal faire included porridge for breakfast, and beans and rice for lunch and dinner. Despite the obvious poverty, Dos Santos said there was a feeling of community.
“You are immediately struck by the lack of essential items,” she said, “but then you are impacted by the beautiful community in Uganda. It was amazing to see everyone care for one another. As a mother, I looked on several times at adults, who were not put in charge of the children, care for them. I also saw the children and adults care for village children who joined in our activities.”
One of the highlights of the trip included a pool day for each orphanage. The group had raised funds for the trip and used them to buy a variety of supplies to give to the orphans. That included over 80 swimsuits, which were both donated and purchased. The group bussed the orphans to a pool, which was rented for the day.
“Some children rode a bus for the first time,” recalled Dos Santos. “It was amazing to provide this experience, and I didn’t mind being splashed at all. Our group was amazed that we never heard children argue or complain, and not one injury occurred.”
Though the group provided a brief respite from everyday life for the orphans, Dos Santos made it clear that more help was needed there.
“I want to make sure when I talk to people about the trip that they understand there is a great need there and that our resources go extremely far,” she said. “When I was with the kids, my heart broke from their lack of shoes.”
Some of them didn’t have shoes, she recalled. Others wore croc-like shoes, some of which had been torn in two then repaired with needle and thread to hold them together.
“All I kept thinking was if I were to send over $200, I could probably buy shoes for all of these kids in one orphanage,” Dos Santos said. “A dollar goes so far there.”
Ironically, she said, her own kids probably owned three pairs of crocs, like most Americans.
“The experience is still working in me and transforming me,” said Dos Santos. “I cannot wait to return. I’ve seen the vast needs and shared them with many. A person cannot return from seeing how little people have and look at all the excess we have. Truthfully, I’m still transitioning back to life here. I spent many months preparing to go, but I did not prepare to return.”
The other important experience, she adds, was the people themselves.
Dos Santos introduces a Ugandan orphan to the iPhone.
“When I tell the story, I want to include the beauty of the people there,” said Dos Santos. “There was no bickering, no one was crying through the whole week…very different from our children. When we were working with the kids, everyone lent a hand. The surrounding village children were welcomed and participated in the events. No one was ever turned away. It’s just a wonderful community they have.”
Dos Santos took home other memories as well, including being on a boat on the Nile River, when they took one group of orphans on a boat trip, stopping along the way at a playground.
“That was a beautiful day,” she recalled. “It was just surreal to be on the Nile, especially as a Christian growing up and reading about the Nile. It was amazing to me.”
Dos Santos added that it wasn’t easy packing up to go back home.
“The toughest part of the trip was saying goodbye,” she said. “I am eager to support them.”
Next time, she said, she would definitely like to take her family, her husband Daniel and their three children: Jacob, Olivia and Lucas. She added that while she was there, she could see her husband helping with repairs and improvements and her own children interacting with the orphans.
“Dan also has a gift with kids,” she added. “I’m hoping some day there’s a trip where I can bring them.”
The crew of volunteers and some of the orphans.