My Story as Founder
I never had any ambition or desire to go to Africa, let alone live there, yet here I am when in 2008 I sold everything I had and boarded a plane headed to Kampala, Uganda. I was 53 years old, divorced with no real responsibilities other than caring for myself. My three daughters were independent, married with kids and my career as therapist in mental health had reached its peak.
Everything that I dreamed of achieving I had accomplished when fate turned the table once again and I found myself on a different path. It is like that in life. A series of events close one door and open’s another and before you know it you are on another road wondering where it will lead to.
I was no stranger to Uganda before I made that decision. In 2002 my sister Debbie Sesman was taking care of Henry, a Ugandan, who came to America to have heart surgery. He was 12 years old and close to dying if he didn’t have three of his heart valves replaced. Luckily a hospital in Boston provided the surgery and he was given a second chance in life. He recovered well with the help of my sister who cared for him after he left the hospital. He lived with her and her husband John close to a year. That is when I met Henry, a skinny little boy who had a lot of compassion for life. His story was typical of many who live in Kampala. He grew up in poverty, barely surviving from day to day. From a family of six kids, a father who abandoned him when he was young, a mother who struggled to provide for the family’s needs and an illness that kept him down, Henry learned that life was painfully hard. Perhaps the suffering gave him his passion to live all that much more.
I was painting my sister’s house during the time Henry was staying there. It didn’t take long before Henry was standing there with a paint brush in his hand wanting to help in any way he could. How could I say no, so I put him to work.
I was able to spend a lot of time with him. There were talks of what he wanted to do in life and the wonder of it all that a modern world like America could offer. When he returned to Kampala my sister and I kept in touch with him and his family. Then a turn of events happened, the referring agency that got Henry the help had a crisis. The director took ill and returned to California. She died and my sister went back with a group of people who were supporting her to reorganize the agency.
There in Kampala Debbie met Henry’s family and a group of single mothers and widows from a church in Kasanga. Through a series of meetings my sister was deeply moved hearing the stories of these women and wanted to do something about it. It was then, at her last meeting before returning home, that she came up with an idea for a business the women could do to provide the means to support themselves. One of the women gave her a handmade African doll as a parting gift. As she looked at the simple crafted doll on her lap, tears began to fall from her cheeks when it dawned on her that the women could make African dolls that could be sold in America. SOW organization was born. Soon over 100 women were making dolls.
The following year my sister was returning to Kampala and she needed a traveling companion, is where I came in, nothing more than that to keep her safe and be a support. I found myself getting off the plane at Entebbe airport in hot tropical weather with the musty smell of red earth and body odor in the air. The airport was run down, dirty and not much to get excited about.
I was there for two weeks. By the time I returned to the airport my life was not the same. I too realized the overwhelming need for help, especially one particular young man named Geoffrey. He was 20 years old and never knew his father and his mother abandoned him when he was about 5 years old. For most of his life he grew up as a servant in the church, cleaning and doing the work that most people won’t do. There was not much of a future for him other than the daily work he was doing. I felt his pain and believed I could father him to give him choices he never had. There began my journey being involved with Uganda.
Each year I returned with my sister helping her with her organization. It went from two weeks, to three weeks, to one month stay at a time. Then the unthinkable happened. Debbie got bone cancer and could no longer be involved. She suffered for about three years and regretfully died. It was a painful experience for all who knew her.
I continued going alone to Uganda during her illness, but after her death I made the decision to move to Kampala. I just couldn’t let the organization stop with all the help it was doing. Besides, the work required more of my time and supervision, so I made the choice to change the course of my life and move there.
Working in the field of social services and psychology for over 20 years gave me an advantage of seeing community development from a different point of view. Non-Government and Community Base Organizations were good at providing services and resources to help deal with poverty, but fell short in dealing with the inward development of people. Telling someone what to do and how to do it with necessary resources doesn’t always work. It is equally important to address the beliefs and attitudes around change. It’s the WHY they do what they do is what was missing.
In 2009 I started Net for Hope Foundation (N4H) to address this issue and rethink how service programs should approach community development. The women sewing business failed for more than one reason, but of those reasons, false and inappropriate beliefs was the one that sabotaged the ability to work together in trust and commitment to see things through. It takes organized effort, contemporary beliefs and core values around work and relationships for businesses to thrive, not just skills training and funding.
When people come together and organize themselves in trust and commitment they will begin to thrive. Resources will increase and hopefulness will tip the community to unite in the right direction that individual efforts cannot. Providing inspirational leadership, education, inner development skills and sustainable economic opportunities is vital to empower people to overcome a persuasive mindset of helplessness and mistrust.
I made it my ambition to see Net for Hope Foundation organize communities in Uganda to solve their own problems by first, building meaningful life changing relationships within their communities in the way one thinks and perceives, along with providing education and skills training. Secondly, the need to capitalize on resources through community owned commercial businesses. This approach creates independent, thoughtful, community solidarity that is sustainable and transformational.