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.”
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.