Korean Americans create the Vangrace Project to help school for orphans in Uganda

By Stacy Nguyen
Northwest Asian Weekly

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Young kids from Vangrace Compassion (Photo by Eric Choi/The Vangrace Project)

It was a thunderstorm they had never seen before. Eric Choi, David Chung, and Jay Hahn had landed in Entebbe International Airport in central Uganda.

On top of visa and currency issues, they learned that five of their six bags were lost in what they called “the black hole of airport luggage rooms.” Inside those bags were medications, toys, soccer balls, books, and other supplies for 154 kids.

That evening, for hours with his wife, three kids, brother, and best friend, Ivan Ssewankambo eagerly waited. When the three appeared, he recognized them easily because the three Korean Americans stuck out from the crowd. Ssewankambo told them they had arrived at a good time. In his country, it’s a blessing when it rains.

Together, they made the grueling six-hour trek to the school in the dark, the last 22-kilometer leg of which was lined with potholes that forced them to get out of the car and to push it as the hard rain pounded against their backs.

“But all the hardships just went away when we saw the kids,” said Choi.

From left to right: Joshua, Ivan’s right hand man, Ivan, and Kevin, Ivan’s brother (Kevin is not Ivan’s biological brother, but they lived in the same house since 8 years old when Ivan was an orphan.) (Photo by Eric Choi/The Vangrace Project)

Social entrepreneurship

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Eric Choi shows children his camera (Photo from the Vangrace Project)

Choi earned an economics degree from the University of Michigan. After graduating in 2007, he did what he thought he had always wanted to do — he worked in finance.

It wasn’t long before he figured out that it made him miserable.

Choi moved back to Seattle and took on a four-month unpaid fellowship with a nonprofit organization. Choi changed careers and today, works as an awards specialist full-time. Still, it wasn’t enough.

So he conceived of a web-based social venture that raises money for other nonprofits working in the field of extreme poverty.

He approached Chung, his soon-to-be brother-in-law, who works in software sales, and Hahn, his friend from church, a software engineer and fellow Michigan alumni.

“A couple years back, I went to Honduras to dig a water well,” said Chung. “And being there, it really opened my eyes to how fortunate we are in the U.S. When I came back, something in my heart said I had to do something. I can’t just turn a blind eye to what’s going on outside of America.”

Donor Effect was launched in December 2011 as a nonprofit corporation. Community-based organizations are featured on its main page with links to donation pages. E-mails started flowing in from organizations, asking to be featured on Donor Effect.

This was how they met Ssewankambo, founder and director of Vangrace Compassion Uganda. Ssewankambo’s e-mail struck the three with its well-prepared and detailed spreadsheets of Vangrace’s budget, but soon for another reason entirely.

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David Chung with students at Vangrace Compassion (Photo from the Vangrace Project)

“Ivan wanted us to come see what he was doing, to partner with him. He didn’t really ask for money. He didn’t ask to just be featured [on Donor Effect], and that got us thinking,” said Choi.

In April, months after starting up Donor Effect, Choi, Chung, and Hahn bought plane tickets to see Vangrace with money from their own pockets.

“If you look at the world and the living conditions of the world, it’s obvious that other places pale in comparison to poverty in Africa,” said Choi. “It’s because of lots of different things. It’s the combination of government corruption, the allocation of resources, food scarcity, among many other reasons that make Africa a place where the issue becomes too grand to solve. Because of this, people don’t want to attack it and almost accept it as it is. But for us, it was a no-brainer. If we cared about helping people who have the most need, those who are victims of circumstances, we had to start in Africa.”

Leading up to their departure in early May, the three launched Vangrace Project, an extension of Donor Effect that focused on raising funds to help Vangrace Compassion stay afloat. The initial goal was $2,000. The goal was surpassed and then doubled in a matter of weeks.

Vangrace Compassion Uganda

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The kids at Vangrace Compassion liked to mimic whatever Jay Hahn did. (Photo from the Vangrace Project)

Buwama, the small town where Vangrace Compassion is located, is more or less a refugee camp. Those who escaped to Uganda during the Rwanda genocide in the 1990s integrated with local Ugandans as best as they could. However, remnants of war still permeate the area.

Choi described Buwama as an underdeveloped rural area with no roads. Education and skill-building are not priorities.

Vangrace Compassion is housed in a rickety structure made out of wood scraps that have experienced decades of rain.

Ssewankambo and his volunteers built the school with their own hands. The kids who attend Vangrace are all orphans who live with guardians. Ssewankambo had pleaded with the guardians to let the kids to go to school. Most of the kids’ parents were lost to HIV and AIDS. The kids are often neglected at home, experience violence, and go unfed.

Ssewankambo was also orphaned, losing his parents at 8 years old, but his life took a different trajectory than others like him due to the generosity of a sponsor who paid for his education. At a university, he acquired a technology skillset and has been able to earn an income, which he put into Vangrace.

Until he lost his job in November, Ssewankambo, who is only 28, was the sole funder, paying for teachers, healthcare, and meals for the kids.

“He’s an incredible man of faith,” said Chung. “He just doesn’t know how he’s going to support the school or his family, even tomorrow, but he knows that it will work out if he keeps pushing. … The fact that he’s doing that much at such a young age — he’s so strong — it just shows us that, for us, there’s no time to rest. It’s just time to go and to make an impact.”

“The Giving Tree”

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Students departing Vangrace Compassion (Photo from the Vangrace Project)

A regret Hahn has is that he wasn’t there to see the kids’ reaction when their soccer balls were unloaded, because of the five missing bags. (Later, Ssewankambo picked up the missing bags when he dropped off the three at the airport to fly home.)

“I really wanted to see their faces when we showed them the soccer balls,” said Hahn, “because they don’t have soccer balls. And that’s their favorite sport. Instead, they have this ball made out of plastic bags they had gathered.”

The kids also used plastic bags in lieu of backpacks.

“They really prized their school supplies,” said Chung, “their pencils, pens, and papers. They would treasure it. Even when they were playing, they’d run around with these plastic bags, which shows you how much they cared about their school and education.”

During the five days they were there, they helped teach classes because, though there are six grade levels, there are only three teachers. The teachers rotate, teaching in 30-minute increments. The three were elated to find that the kids were about on par with American students in math and English.

“They were so attentive,” said Chung. “They were so — I can’t explain it — they were ready to learn. In the morning when I walked into class, they’d all stand up and say, ‘Hello, Sir David.’ … You asked for volunteers and a bunch of kids volunteered.”

“[In] one of the classes I taught, there was a crazy troublemaker, Sekandi,” said Choi. “He was just a goofy guy. He’d bust out the moonwalk. He didn’t care about learning until we brought out a book. He looked at the picture of the author on the back and said, ‘Obama!’ The book was actually ‘The Giving Tree,’ [by Shel Silverstein]. He thought [Silverstein] was Black because it was a black and white picture. And then he went quiet and read the whole book.”

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Eric Choi in Buwama. Many of the families who live in the makeshift houses fled to Buwama during the Rwandan genocide (Photos from the Vangrace Project)

“We see something like education as the norm, something that’s just given to us, something [that’s] part of the system,” added Choi. “We take it for granted, but these kids truly appreciate it. A lot of these kids walk five miles each way, and no one’s telling them to come. No one’s telling them what education does for them. They just come, and the whole time they are there, they want to learn and write down everything we say and write.”

The kids attend school for about eight hours a day. They have a morning session before recess, but they do not have lunch because Vangrace isn’t currently funded enough. Instead, the kids chew on sugar cane.

Next steps

Not only does Ssewankambo want to offer more grade levels at the school to build a bridge toward higher education, he’d also like to provide housing and safety for the kids by turning it into an orphanage.

Choi, Chung, and Hahn are in the middle of figuring out how to help.

“Sustainability is important because as we saw, once Ivan lost his job, the school was hurt,” said Hahn. “We have to make sure that the money doesn’t just come from one source.”

The donations garnered through Vangrace Project will support the school for another three to four months. In that time, Choi, Chung, and Hahn aim to come up with a plan to either raise more money or ideally, create a strategy for Ssewankambo and his volunteers to raise money themselves.

“For me,” said Hahn, reflecting on his trip, “what stood out the most was how happy the kids were to be with each other, to be at the school. When I envisioned this trip, I thought I’d see a lot of kids who were physically ill, who weren’t happy about their situation because they’ve lost their parents. But I think the fact that they’re able to get educated and be with friends for eight hours a day — you could hear it in their genuine laughs. It feels different to hear them laugh.” (end)

For more information, visit www.vangraceproject.org.

Stacy Nguyen can be reached at info@nwasianweekly.com.

3 Responses to “Korean Americans create the Vangrace Project to help school for orphans in Uganda”

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  2. wagidoso Dan says:

    Dear brethren,
    This is community child development orphanage in Uganda sironko district.
    we are a Christian founded CBO that takes care of 100 orphan kids.
    We are kindly requesting you to get involved with us..
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    Be blessed
    Dan.

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