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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.

A Chance…

17 Aug


With around 750 participants going through our course in the last few months you can easily say there are some good days and bad days.  Last Friday was a difficult day.  We brought a group of secondary students (high school) from Kitgum district, which is about 2.5 hours from Gulu.  The bus had a flat tire on the way and the group arrived more than 4 hours late.  Bad start.

planning to get through the web

In one of our games participants are asked to get their team of 12 people through a man made spider’s web (bungee cords).  They CAN’T touch any of the webbing, or the whole team has to start over.  One of the main tenets of the teaching is we don’t tell them how to accomplish the tasks or give them the answers.  They have to use what they already have (themselves, their team, their environment) in order to complete the objectives.  Safe to say, I was getting very frustrated when 45 minutes into the activity and after several tries the students couldn’t figure out they needed to simply lift each other up to pass through the web.  They needed to work together.

On the porch with Case that evening I started to think about the day and couldn’t shake it.  You could see in their eyes they just didn’t know, systems here don’t encourage thinking for yourself, or coming up with different answers to a single problem.  The people “helping” are supposed to tell them exactly how things need to be done without any input from them.  Because our team chose not to do that, it was an incredibly frustrating activity.

A few days later I came across this quote:

“Unless you’re willing to have a go, fail miserably, and have another go, success won’t happen.” Phillip Adams

After praying and thinking about the day, and this quote, my angst has since turned to complete joy.  What a blessing this project is.  When these kids go through our course they get a chance.  A chance to run, play, learn, dream, apply, think, and fly.  They get a chance to succeed, fail, or do both.  They get a chance to try.  I haven’t been with a single participant yet that didn’t give it a go or make an attempt to take advantage of the opportunities in front of them.  Some have succeeded out the gate, some have struggled, but all continued to get up and keep going.

It is not something to be taken for granted here.  Most of these kids have never, and may never again have a chance to do something like this.  We pray though, that it opens their eyes to the possibilities in their lives.  That by seeing, and then doing, a fire will be lit in their hearts to dream big, and to think in new and positive ways about their spiritual, physical, and emotional development.  The game is changing here, with every chance that one of these kids gets.

trust me, they are very thankful for this opportunity

In the next year we are hoping to pour youth through the course.  It only costs $4 to give a kid the opportunity to experience our ropes course for one full day, including a very sustaining lunch, which can’t be underestimated.  That means for every $25 monthly donation we can send around 80 kids through our project in a year.  Please consider making an impact and joining our team by signing up for monthly donations.  Your gift literally gives these kids a chance to experience this type of joy and learning for the first time in their lives.

And for all of us, I hope we see our failures as opportunities to learn, but more importantly, as an opportunity to pick ourselves up and go at it again.

Needs by Al Leone

25 Jul


The primary senses: sight, touch, taste, smell, and hearing. Perhaps the first thought for those of us from Western culture is that without one we will be unable to communicate. We will be inefficient. We will not survive and be successful. Yet, during the second official facilitator training, the staff of TRP demonstrated that nothing is impossible as long as you can think outside of the box.

One of the first initiatives that the facilitators had to perform was an exercise in which there were three leaders and five followers. The followers were blindfolded and had an unknown list of tasks to complete. The leaders knew what the tasks were and had been instructed to help the followers complete the task without speaking to the followers or touching the followers or the objects needed to complete the task. Some of the tasks included passing a ball, singing a song and putting on a pair of sunglasses. Like other groups that I have seen attempt this activity, our facilitators struggled and frustration grew as the communication, apparently nonsensical, was leading them nowhere.
“What do you need,” I asked both groups and quickly they listed off needs for understanding and better communication. The followers were in agreement that they were waiting to be lead. Yet, when I asked why they were waiting there was no response. When I asked what was stopping them from asking for what they needed from their leaders there was again no response. Slowly, progress began. The blindfolded participants began to ask questions to promote their own learning and those with the answers were finally able to give information.
The activity ended in a wave of relief as the knowledge that they had been successful brought about celebration. Again I asked ‘what did you need’ and ‘why did you wait to get it’.
“What do you need’? The answer is never simple, especially in a place like Gulu where so many of the resources we once could rely upon on are taken from us. Yet, just like in this activity, the people have found ways to think creatively and use the greatest asset they have: each other. While there are still more struggles that we must face the people have each other and TRP facilitators are bringing the resources of creativity and community back.

Slide Show

7 Apr


TRP Facilitators

We have just completed our first facilitator training for The Recreation Project.  Turn out was 100% with maximum participation!  Aaron, a Peace Corps volunteer led us through two full days of group initiatives and taught us principles of experiential learning and facilitation.  A final debriefing exercise he taught us was “slide show”.  An activity where all participants closed their eyes and told the group the most memorable snap-shot or picture of the training.  This blog will be a few of my snap-shots.


Giving instructions without talking

Giving instructions without seeing

Zach being passed through the Spider's Web

Irene, free as a bird!

Irene, free as a bird!

As a participant, I had the unique opportunity to experience the activities myself.  An exercise I won’t soon forget was called, “Crossing the line”.  Aaron divided the group in half and placed a rope in between the two groups.  He gave both groups an objective. (The same objective, but we didn’t know that at the time).  The objective was to get all of the people from the other side of the rope to your side—without touching them.  After 45 minutes we had not accomplished the goal.  We tried all kinds of negotiation, convincing tactics, and manipulation, to lure the others to our side.  For no clear reason, we deeply mistrusted the other group because we felt that they were only interested in achieving their goal and making us lose.  Competition set in as soon as Aaron gave us the objective.  About half way through, I realized that we might be able to both succeed if we simply switched sides.  I suggested this to the other group, using every big of logic and persuasion I could.  The other group was so entrenched in their mistrust of me that they could not see my request as a solution.  It was only another trap in their mind.  The dynamics of the group changed after this exercise.  Not irreparably, but we had all felt a level of otherness or competition with the other group that couldn’t easily be shaken off.  The activity exposed human nature’s propensity to mistrust in the absence of information, and how quickly we can become seated in our mistrust.  It was extremely powerful, and I’m looking forward to doing this activity with all the groups that visit the Project.

Zip Line: a flying response to fear

29 Mar


Prepping them to fly

This afternoon Ben and I went and met with the Comboni Samaritans to reflect on one of their youth groups who had recently went through the course.  During the conversation we were asking about the feedback they had heard from students.  What did they think?  What did they learn?  How did it change their outlook on life?  The local program officer, Pasca, told us about her interactions with some of the women

She said, “You know, those girls were scared.  It is not an easy thing to climb up a 25 ft high tree and fly through the air across the forest.  I was very happy to see them overcome that fear.  At the beginning some of them weren’t going to try, but as others went it gave them the courage they needed.  All 10 girls ended up flying down the 300 ft zip line.  They will remember that forever.”

Here are a few short thoughts about the day itself and my conversation with Pasca:

1.  If one thing you do in your life is watch a Ugandan kid go down a zip line for the first time then consider yourself a lucky person.  Fear and uncertainty immediately transform into:  Courage.  Joy.  Elation.  Fearlessness.

It will change you.

2.  It is very encouraging to see our beneficiaries using phrases like, “they will remember this forever”.  The Ropes course  is such a radical change of scenes that the values and lessons learned WILL stick with them forever.

There is much in the world to make us afraid.  There is much more in our faith to make us unafraid.  ~Frederick W. Cropp

Thanks for your time, energy, resources, and overall support making this zip line a reality!  More updates coming soon!