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!

Choosing the Challenge – Aber’s Leap of Faith

27 Jun

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.