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The Thread, reflections by Zach and Casey

1 Apr

Boys holding trophy

There’s a thread you follow.  It goes among

things that change.  But it doesn’t change.

People wonder about what you are pursuing.

You have to explain about the thread.

But it is hard for others to see.

While you hold it you can’t get lost…

William Stafford


To say the past few months at The Recreation Project in Gulu has been challenging, has stretched us personally and organizationally would be an understatement.   A long-time champion and friend of and for TRP, Sister Mary Carla, suddenly passed away this month.  Not only has she loved us and our vision from the time it was but a dream, she has encouraged us as the building and growing has occurred - rejoiced with us in our successes – and the loss of her and her beautiful smile is felt deeply here in the forest.

Times like these, you have but a thread – and at TRP that thread is, and has always been, each other.  The relationships we have with one another, and with you, are the ties that bind our work and mission and make it whole.  We hold onto that thread, when what we’re doing and how we’re doing it seems strange and unusual – when people don’t ‘get it’.  We hold onto that thread when we lose someone who does – someone like Sister Carla – we hold on tight.  We hold onto one another.  We believe in one another.

Which is why it is so important to us to built TRP as an organization with a vision that most, if not all, of the activities conducted here might one day be handed back over fully to the Ugandan community in Gulu, to the Sisters, to the staff who have worked beside us to catch that vision.  This is our hope – that the relationships – and the local people we build into and who’ve built into TRP will one day fully embrace the key that they have been the keepers of all along.  The key to redemptive, holistic, pluralistic change in region and a people that have been historically marginalized and mistreated.

Mike leading young men from Bishop Negri Primary School

Mike leading young men from Bishop Negri Primary School

This vision is already coming to fruition in ways – at the turn of this New Year TRP birthed a local community-based organization called Waveland Academy which will be the umbrella under which all of the youth sports programs will fall under.  Waveland is 100% locally staffed by Ugandans who run day to day activities at the local partner schools where we have baseball and softball programs.  Zach will oversee the operation from the United States and this will continually be an important program that TRP supports – but the staff here in northern Uganda: Goofy, Mike, and Lenny will be ultimately responsible for making the wheels on the Waveland bus go round and round.

The belief we have in one another is the thread that we hold onto – which is why we are so excited and trusting that this step, to send a small group of staff out there to do work on TRP’s behalf, is exactly the right one we need to give TRP, and the youth in northern Uganda, their wings.  It’s funny that by holding on – so many broken things and broken people might be set free.  Thank you for continuing to dream and ‘hang on’ together with us.

-  Casey and Zach

The reason why we do what we do.

The reason why we do what we do.


If Trees Could Talk. A Forest Story

19 Oct

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One of the initial couples to come help start The Recreation Project was the Kurtz family.  Since they have moved back to Denver they have stayed involved and are the primary people helping to put together our Denver Fundraiser this weekend (with the help of a few of their good friends!).  Read this from Kel.  We hope it inspires you to come this weekend, whether in Omaha or Denver, to see how you can add your name to this story.

Imagine if the forest could talk.  If the trees could give testimony to what they have seen, we might fall silent.  This forest has grown-up under the vast blue African sky, been sustained by the heavy seasons of rain, and survived the heat of the scorching sun.  As the trees grew, children played in their branches and the weary found rest in their shade.

But twenty years ago the story of this place began to change.  As the conflict in northern Uganda reached its violent peak, this forest’s story became one of survival; bearing witness to the pain of the Acholi people.  It stood tall during the nights when the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) roamed through it, creeping their way towards town to wage their violent political campaigns and abductions.  On occasion, it provided a hiding place for the rebels to rest and regroup.

The forest sits next to St. Mary’s Lacor Hospital.  During the height of the conflict the hospital was one of the largest “night-commuter centers” with tens of thousands of youth gathering every evening to seek refuge.  On their way, they passed through the shade of the forest but no longer to play in its branches or find rest.  Instead they walked fearfully, rushing to try to make it safely to the hospital in hopes of escaping the dangers that came with the night.  If they didn’t walk they could be abducted by the LRA, forced to join its ranks and lose any fragmented piece of childhood that remained.

So they walked.  And the forest witnessed every devastating moment.

Seeds of fear were planted.  Violence scattered.  It’s a wonder the trees themselves didn’t shrivel up and die.  But no… trees have something deeper rooted in their being.  In the midst of this shattering, they spoke the language of restoration and life.

As peace has now come to Acholiland, the children continue to commute through the forest, but not seeking safety.  They commute to school, to fetch water and maybe even to climb some of the forest’s branches again.  And something mysteriously beautiful has taken place.  The very spot where seeds of fear were planted, a reaping of hope is beginning to rise.  The harvest is being transformed; violence to peace, fear to love…joy, freedom, forgiveness, faith, kindness, laughter.  They are sprouting their heads.  And Oh my!  They are spectacular.

This forest is now the home to The Recreation Project. With TRP, youth that were once forced to walk now have the opportunity to play, to run and even fly!  The same soil that unwillingly harbored the LRA is becoming a place where students will learn valuable life skills in a safe and unique environment. A zip-line, challenge course, climbing wall and leap-of-faith will provide opportunities to soar to new heights.  A meadow of nightmares is being transformed into fields of dreams as kids gather to play baseball and basketball.  Dirt stained clothes are no longer markers of toil and strife, but of homeruns and downright childhood romping.  Intentional healing spaces, such as a tree house for processing the day’s events give the Ugandan community a place to mend broken childhoods and restore hope for a war-torn people.

This Sunday, we gather to celebrate all that has been done with TRP over the last 3 years.  We gather to bear witness like those tall eucalyptus trees and mutter what they speak so clearly, “Look!  Beauty from ashes!  Life from death! It’s possible!  I see it!” We gather to support and come behind the community and restoration of northern Uganda.  We gather to see to it to that the seedlings of hope, have a chance to grow into big, tall, strong trees…strong enough to support the dreams, pictures and lives of even the little ones that will come behind them.  Join us!


Food by Olivea, Desserts by Wooden Spoon & Happy Cakes!  Fun and life changing experience by YOU!

Picture This…

20 Sep

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The Merriam Webster dictionary defines a picture as “A description so vivid or graphic to suggest a mental image or give an accurate idea of something”

Many “pictures” of northern Uganda focus on fear, trauma, hopelessness, joblessness, and lack of opportunity, and many organizations use those pictures to compel partners to act.  We choose to focus on different pictures of northern Uganda.  Here are a few images we have seen at The Recreation Project recently.  Picture This…

An empty forest transformed into a place of exhilaration and rest.

An outdoor adventure and sports staff.  We now have 16 meaningfully and gainfully employed staff and facilitators: an image we are very proud of.


Facilitator Nyeko Patrick leading a group through the ropes course.


Northern Uganda’s first baseball field and a team that looks like they’ve played for years.


Kids playing on Gulu’s first baseball field, built by The Recreation Project


A basketball team.  Acholi girls getting their first opportunity to show their skills on a consistent basis.

A young guy in a wheelchair climbing the Leap of Faith, with the help of his classmates, and living what it means to be included.


Ben and Robert, staff at The Recreation Project, strap in Dennis to the Leap of Faith. An inspiring moment in the forest.


The first climbing club in Uganda, giving a weekly opportunity to recreate, learn climbing techniques, and socialize.

BUT the internal pictures we see in the kids resulting from these activities are even more valuable.  We see them building confidence, we see them trusting one another, we see them overcoming fear, we see them dream.  Youth in Uganda rarely have a chance to experience these pictures .  But as they are exposed to The Recreation Project’s programming they provide images of what it looks like to be resilient.  It’s inspiring and we want you to be inspired as we have been.

That is why over the next 4 months The Recreation Project is launching its “Picture This” campaign.  Its focus will be to share these images and what it takes to produce them in northern Uganda.  Our hope is that people will be compelled to join us in multiplying these pictures in coming years.

By the end of 2012 The Recreation Project needs to garner support from 50 individuals who can make regular commitments to our programs, ranging from $25 to $100 per month.  We will also have certain expenses that require a one-time gift and an opportunity to join our team in this way will be presented.

Picture This:  Hundreds of people from around the world, who have seen how recreation in its many forms has changed their own lives, joining in the process of offering this to Uganda’s youth.


Faces in the forest, the ones which inspire us to keep providing recreational opportunities to Ugandan youth.


What is your picture for northern Uganda?  (please comment below)  We think it can be big.  Join us in seeing it come alive.

“After all, where do dreams start?  They start when we’re playing, when we’re free to run and romp around.  That’s when we imagine we’re something bigger than we are.”-Kevin Carroll

Choosing the Challenge – Aber’s Leap of Faith

27 Jun

Leap of Faith

People ask me all the time if I really believe our program makes a difference, especially when we see some of the kids for only 8 hours.  Does the program put youth in a place to walk away with brand new ideas and a belief that they actually CAN change the direction of their lives?  Why is this program different than other programs?  Why should I give my time, energy, and funding to supporting your project?  DOES IT WORK!?!

First off, thank you.  We want these questions, they are what makes us tick.  Ben and I along with countless others who are involved with TRP are CONSTANTLY talking about the programming, how to make it better, how to fit it to our beneficiaries, how to make it work for youth from northern Uganda.  So keep asking, we want it, and even throw us an idea if you have one.

But for one second here, I want to let the story of a girl named Aber give you some insight to our program and just how powerful it can be.

Aber was one of 100 girls to take part in “Camp Build/Glow”, a 5 day camp sponsored by Peace Corp for youth in northern Uganda.  They spent day 3 at the camp going through a teambuilding day at the ropes course.  Aber was on team “Zebra”, around 13 years old, quite small, very quiet, but always smiling.  All the youth who were part of this specific camp had been severely affected by the war.  They could have been abducted, had family members who were, or maybe they were placed in an IDP camp.  We didn’t know the individual stories, but we knew all of them had some portion of their life stolen by a violent conflict.  Aber was no different.

Peace Corp Camp, the Zebra Team

The day after these girls came to the ropes course Peace Corp was sponsoring HIV/AIDS testing for the youth.  This was an additional part of their programming that they felt was needed.  Many are affected with HIV/AIDS and a volunteer told me the percentage is higher for those subjected to the tragedies of war.  Peace Corp did an entire presentation on the value of knowing your status, that it was the first step to becoming healthy.  The reality is it terrifies youth here to get tested.  They feel it is a death sentence and that if the disease itself doesn’t kill them the stigmatization provided by the community will.  So most just don’t want to know.  But you can’t get better if you don’t face your fears and find out if you need the help.  The Peace Corp volunteers said it was a difficult day trying to get these youth over the fear they felt in order to take the leap of faith.  Peace Corp was in no way mandating the testing, the youth had to choose whether or not they wanted to do it or not.

When Aber first came to the “Leap of Faith” at the ropes course she moved herself to the back of the line.  In this activity individuals strap into a full body harness, climb 25 ft in the air, balance on a tree stump with approximately the same surface area as the top of a telephone pole, and then leap to a trapeze with nothing but air between you and the ground.  TRP is guided by the principle of “challenge by choice” on high elements.  Participants choose whether they want to do activities or how far they want to go.  For instance, if Aber didn’t want to do the whole Leap of Faith, she could simply put on the harness.  We would then encourage her to go further the next time she went, but we at least want them to take the steps they can take, and then ask if they are interested in going further.  We are constantly asking, “Are you ok?  Have you finished or do you want to take the next step?”  After that question we don’t push any further, we simply listen to the desires of the participant.

The Leap of Faith, standing a mere 25 feet off the ground.

Katie, the Peace Corp volunteer helping me, immediately noticed Aber had sunk to the back of the line.  As we put the rest of the girls through the element, Katie tried to talk to Aber.  At first it was a chore just to get her to put the harness on.  We talked her through what the outcomes would be, assured her that she was safe to do the whole activity, but that it had to be her to choose if she wanted to or not.  Aber finally agreed that it would be a good idea to put on the harness.  Once she had it on, we asked if she wanted to climb up the tree just a few notches.  A nervous Aber nodded yes.  So she did, and then the courage started to kick in.  We didn’t have to ask another question.  She made her first goal and then proceeded  to push herself to the top.  She delicately balanced herself on the pole, then on the count of three, took the leap, grabbed the trapeze, and provided us with a once in a lifetime smile.  I looked over, Katie was beaming with joy.

Youth in northern Uganda are resilient.  It makes sense; they have endured things I can’t even imagine.  But I have noticed they also fear taking steps.  Too many times they have been disappointed by the end result.  In my last blog I wrote about losing, and trust me, one of the biggest lessons to be learned here is how to deal with loss.  It is everywhere.  But, they also need to experience a win, they deserve a chance to shine.  On this day Aber felt what it was like to face her fears, to push herself farther than she thought possible, and the end result was an experience she can hold onto forever.

So although we are constantly tweaking programs, daily we see healing and change come to the youth.  And the best part is they are the actors.  It is not as if we are preaching about it, they are actually living it.  They live it through games, activities, and most importantly opportunities that our wonderful facilitators put before them.

I followed up with the Peace Corp camp directors a few weeks back.  They booked more groups with us for August and are going to do the camp again next year.  They said the youth couldn’t stop talking about the day.  They also told me that almost every kid went through HIV/AIDS testing.  I like to think that the activities they did the day before had something to do with that.  It was a day where they practiced facing up to challenges, not knowing if it was going to produce a good result or something that might be damaging.  But they learned that facing them was the only way to move forward.  When I think about our program and what impact we are leaving with the youth of northern Uganda, this quote comes to mind:

“Here is the world.  Beautiful and terrible things will happen.  Don’t be Afraid.”

Frederic Buechner

Thanks Aber, for not being afraid, and for showing us what true courage looked like that day.  It was a beautiful thing that happened, you shined.


4 Jun


(Authors Note:  This is the 3rd part of a blog series about baseball and TRP.  I wrote this a few months back, and have changed a few things, so some of the events are from the past)

Yesterday we had the second game of Gulu’s first ever baseball league.  The Yankees made a valiant comeback but were stopped short by the Cardinals 11-10.  It is really amazing how far the kids have come in 3 weeks.  It speaks to the resiliency of youth and there unbelievable knack to adapt.  They are hardly stuck in their ways at 11 or 12 years.  We as adults could learn a lesson when looking at their flexibility.  Maybe this is why Jesus always says you must become like a child to understand the kingdom of God.

The Yankees hit a home run to make the score 11-10 with two outs in the last inning (meaning the right fielder missed the ball and Augustin was able to run forever).  It was a beautiful moment as I watched the kids get so excited about their comeback.  On the other side I could see the Cardinals realize they needed to get serious and make the final out to preserve their victory.  The last batter came up and went down on three strikes.  Elation for the Cardinals and disappointment for the Yanks.

At that point I started to see the Yankees pointing at each other and instantly their mood of joy changed to major disappointment and blame.  All game they had worked through their mistakes and accomplishments with joy but as it came to a close and they realized the loss a new attitude swept over them.  This is the main reason that international sports development likes to “stay away” from competitive atmospheres.  I believe it is the exact reason we must play these games.

My brother-in-law Bret was able to teach our catchers a few things on his trip

My brother-in-law Bret was able to teach our catchers a few things on his trip

We could all use a lesson in losing.  Nobody likes it, it is not what we strive for, but someone is going to lose.  Whether it is in sports, school, business, relationships, or any other aspect of human life it will happen.  How the world deals with loss might just be what is keeping us from seeing true peace and love.

I walked over to the Yankees with Coach Kenneth (I needed a translator for this).  I spoke briefly about how important it is to learn how to lose.  We talked about taking personal responsibility and not blaming others.  We talked about working on ground balls and fly balls so that we would get better next time.  And I might have got a bit over their head with the last one, but I said it anyway:  How you lose in life and what you do with that loss will be an extremely large factor in whom you are as a person and where you take this journey.

This flies in the face of a lot of cultural values both in Uganda and the United States.  In the US we are built on being the best.  Our losses do extreme damage to our pride and to our sense of security.  Our life is built on getting ahead of others.  In work, in life, in the global world, we are always trying to lead out and be the winner.  This in itself is not a bad thing, I get it.  God wants us to shine; I believe that with my whole heart.  But our motives in wanting to pursue greatness are key, and I would also say that the actual outcome is much less important than the journey (thanks Tom Osborne).  Also, what you sacrifice along the way might actually make the win a lot less valuable (relationships hurt, integrity lost, etc).  If were on the wrong journey with the wrong heart than winning will either disappear, mean nothing, and certainly will never satisfy the best parts of us.

In Uganda losing is different.  During the war losing wasn’t about pride or ego or disappointment, it was about your entire livelihood, or even your physical life.  Losses here could easily mean you lost one or both of those things.  Although peace has returned to the north losing still has devastating effects.  Losing a crop for a farmer, losing a job that supports 40 family members, losing a baby because of inadequate health care, or losing a friend to aids.  All of this has devastating affects that go well beyond our “feelings”.  It isn’t the same ballgame; in lots of cases here it literally is a battle for survival.

We can’t escape losing on either side of the ocean nor anywhere in the world.  In my personal experience I see a lot of giving up in Uganda, and I would probably do the same if faced with these circumstances.  I sat in a room with 6 Gulu Hawks basketball players about a year ago and listened to why they had stopped looking for jobs at 25 years old.  It was everyone else’s fault about why they couldn’t find work and they were done wasting time.  25 and the system had already dealt them enough losses that they had given up.  By the way, all of them had university educations.  As the Yankees lost yesterday I could see the beginnings of slipping into a routine where blaming others and just giving up seem like the only response.

In 10 minutes I am going to jump on a boda boda, plug in my earphones, and take the 20 minute ride to Bishop Negri Primary School for PE.  I usually play the ESPN Radio show “Mike and Mike” as I ride over.  Today I am sure I am going to hear about Peyton Manning going to Denver while the Broncos look to trade a guy who led them to a playoff win last year, Tim Tebow.  I haven’t seen Tebow’s response but my bet is this guy is going to give us a tremendous example of how to lose a job.  I will venture out there and say that he will take it with an extreme amount of grace and let it motivate him to work even harder to achieve success in the NFL.  Will he get a chance to be a starting quarterback again?  Who knows, maybe not, despite all the hard work he will put in.  But I am also sure that this move will not define one bit of who Tim Tebow is.  He won’t throw blame at John Elway for disloyalty or blame anyone else.  Remember, this is the guy who meets with people in life-threatening situations before and after each game to remind him of how “unimportant” his job on a football field is.

My hope, my prayer, is that through some of these baseball leagues we will encourage these kids to believe in a new story.  This new story is about empowerment, that they can control their next steps.  It is also about working hard and getting better, not giving up until you have pushed yourself as far as you desire.  And most importantly, it is about understanding that loss doesn’t define who you are.  This world is brutal and people can lose things in an instant.  But one thing people can’t take from you is your character, integrity, and desires.  We want our youth to not only believe that, but to live it.  For now that starts on a baseball diamond.

I want to wrap this up by going back to my point on the flexibility of kids.  After our little pep talk after the big Yankees loss all of the kids snapped out of their attitudes.  They went and greeted the winners and joined in their celebration.  They walked back and talked about how Dennis hit a ball that almost knocked over the first basemen.  They were laughing about Okello’s foul ball that drilled Coach Mike in the chest.  They had moved on, and were looking forward to practice the next day.  This is where my hope springs up.  The Lord wishes all of us to have the joy of a child, and I think he would like us all to have the perseverance and short memories of them as well.  A situation that could have turned into hate, competitiveness, and greed was transformed to one of joy, laughter, and peace.  By both the winners and the losers.

Early morning training in Mpigi