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!

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

Introducing Grace

5 Oct

I moved to Gulu in January and almost immediately started hearing rumour of a climbing wall. Being a keen climber and general outdoor adventure-nut, I had to investigate. This is how I found The Recreation Project.
My first impression was one of amazement that someone had even thought to build an outdoor activity centre in a developing country, in a former conflict zone. With a background in youth work, outdoor education and mental health, I understand and have witnessed the benefits of adventure-based therapy first-hand back home in New Zealand. What I didn’t expect was to meet people with the vision and drive to use this tool to work with war-affected youth in northern Uganda. My first reaction was to ask when I could climb on their wall!
I was then roped into (excuse the pun) helping out with some of the big groups they had coming through the forest. Seeing the youth trying out the zipline, leap of faith and climbing wall for their very first time was an absolute pleasure. Their energy was infectious but most rewarding was seeing those who had the greatest fear overcome it and make a huge gain in self-confidence. I was also impressed by the professionalism and enthusiasm of the TRP staff and facilitators, most of whom come from the local area and can tell their own moving stories about growing up during the LRA’s insurgency. I enjoyed these days so much I started talking with Ben and Zach about how I could get more involved with TRP and this resulted in a three month volunteer placement as their Capacity Building Coordinator.
One of my first tasks has been to work towards setting up Uganda’s first Youth Climbing Club. The goal being to provide the opportunity for local out-of-school youth to learn how to climb, develop leadership skills and learn about protecting the environment. When they complete the training programme we’ll take them on an Outdoor Adventure Excursion to a National Park – a place few local youth ever get the chance to visit. I am incredibly excited to be a part of making this happen and hope that we can bring others onboard to lend their technical and financial support as well as provide climbing gear for these youth!

I’ve also been able to look at how we can make the ropes course and programmes more accessible for people with disabilities. I’ll finish with one of my favourite pictures from working at The Recreation Project so far:

Fred fell out of a tree when he was 13 years old and broke his back, he has been using a wheelchair ever since. Now in his mid-30s, he climbed a tree for the first time since his accident last weekend at The Recreation Project. Strapped into a harness, with a couple of strong facilitators hauling on the rope, Fred managed to pull himself up the ladder to the platform in the tree. Once up there and clipped into the zipline trolley, he started to question the safety and sanity of what he was doing. But he still managed to launch himself off the platform and fly down the zipline. As he came down from the wire and reseated himself in his wheelchair, he had a look of shear amazement and joy on his face. Fred told us he couldn’t quite believe he had done it but that he was incredibly pleased to have overcome his fear and enjoyed flying through the air. He now wants to do it again and bring his sons next time to share the experience.

Picture This…

20 Sep

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

We Can Reform

22 Aug

I remember asking all of you readers if you believed in the potential for rehabilitation for young people who have committed crimes. Two weeks ago I met with several boys from the Gulu Remand Home (a place where minors stay while awaiting their trial). One of the boys said “People don’t believe that we can reform—but we can, and we do!”   The boys I talked to admitted their crimes.  They showed remorse and explained how they came to committing the crime. They said most people in society think that they are worthless and need to stay behind bars—but many of the boys themselves believe that they can take steps towards amending the wrongs they have done and still live a normal life. We want to fan their resilient attitudes.

 

 

 

 

TRP has hosted the Remand Home children in the forest in the past, but we’re moving into a long-term relationship with them in bringing the boys and girls to TRP for an ongoing series of 6 trainings. Themes for the day programs include: decision-making, leadership and peer pressure, psychosocial support, family sessions, and vision-casting among others.  At the same time, we are offering a weekly sports outreach (in partnership with UNICEF) and hope to begin giving them opportunities to learn the trade of building a “kitchen garden” (small vegetable garden) and raring poultry.  These activities will keep them active while learning a practical skill which they can use upon returning home.  The final aspect of our program will create time and space for parents and family members to talk to children about ways of staying out of trouble and cultivate healthy family patterns.

 

 

 

 

Outside of weekly literacy and numeracy classes, there are no planned activities for the children at the Home.  Bringing them to the ropes course and having weekly sports training camps allows them engage in meaningful physical activity. One boy said “we usually sit here and play cards, but your forest is a place that all of the children here should experience—it is a place that we never expected we would go.”

Pivot of transformation!

21 Aug

TRP is a powerful pivot of transformation to the community of northern Uganda. When I first started working as a facilitator, I thought it was just the matter of having fun.  Having facilitated many different types of groups and a wide diversity of participants, I can more clearly see TRP as an agent of peace building and a tool of conflict resolution.

Managers of organisations are using TRP to improve on their management and leadership skills. At the project, managers look for answers that they can apply in the work environment. One manager explained that his office was split—each doing parallel tasks but neither of them communicating or getting along.  The facilitator was asked, “What should a manager do in such a situation?”  To answer the question, the facilitator pushed back another question to his group asking “were there conflicting issues as you participated in this activity?  If so, what were they and how were they resolved?”  The same workplace dynamic had presented itself at the ropes course and the team worked through interpersonal differences to achieve the task in the forest.   “Is the process of working together and achieving goals in the forest is essentially the same in the workplace?” the facilitator asked.  The manager left feeling a renewed sense of hope in overcoming the challenges of his split team.

 

For the last two days TRP brought primary school kids to the forest. They were a brave group of kids but hesitated and almost gave up when looking at the climbing wall.  One kid finally stood up and said “If we don’t do this now, we may never get another chance.  Let us trust that they won’t drop us.”   Each kid was given an assignment by the principal of the school to write about their experience.  When we asked what they would write about they said how the day helped them to work together, to be kind and loving, to work hard to accomplish their life goals, to support their parents, and to pass exams!