By Kerry Kong and Monica Chapman
Breakfast before heading off to school may be part of the regular routine for the average American child, but to Muhebwa Richard, it was a dream. Since his parents died in 2001, then 12-year old Richard had been living alone in a village in Uganda, working to raise crops on his small plot of land, struggling to survive.
Cases like Richard's are commonplace in Uganda. According to UNICEF, 65 percent of Ugandan children fall into the category of orphans and other vulnerable children, which includes child laborers, disabled children and unschooled children, among others.
Richard was once a part of that statistic. That is, until he met Andria Sherrow, who is now spearheading a charge to educate disadvantaged Ugandan youth, largely through volunteer efforts on the Ohio University campus.
"He was the reason why I switched my research focus," said Sherrow, thinking back to her graduate studies in Uganda.
As a student at Southern Oregon University, Sherrow traveled to Uganda in 2004 to study comparisons between Native American and African youth groups. Her graduate work included teaching at a primary school and doing capacity building with non-governmental organizations.
Sherrow first encountered Richard while taking her daughter to school. After their fifth meeting, she decided to find out his story -- a story that continues to impact the course of her life.
When Sherrow returned to the U.S., she dedicated herself to education in rural Africa. In spring 2006, she incorporated Educate Foundation, a nonprofit organization that provides access to education and educational resources to children, women and families living in vulnerable regions of the world. When she moved with her family to Athens to join the Ohio University community, she brought Educate with her.
Within Educate, Sherrow and her husband, Hogan, an assistant professor of anthropology at Ohio University, launched the Empower Campaign. Empower, as it is known around campus, raises funds in the U.S. to provide orphans and vulnerable children in Uganda with the opportunity to get an education.
So far, Ohio University's campaign has enabled the education of more than 2,000 children in addition to supporting five women's cooperatives, which house approximately 50 women each, according to Sherrow. Student volunteers spearhead the organization's fundraising efforts, selling hand-crafted beaded jewelry made out of recycled paper. Sherrow purchases all of the jewelry at a fair-trade rate from women in Ugandan villages.
Jewelry sales take place at Baker University Center each Wednesday during the school year from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and on special event weekends throughout the year.
In 2008, Sherrow was selected as assistant director of Ohio University's Institute for the African Child, a role that complements her charity work in Uganda. Meanwhile, Empower has grown into a 75-member volunteer organization at Ohio University, something Sherrow credits to student interest and motivation.
Britney Gedeon, a sophomore media arts major, currently serves as president of the Ohio University chapter.
"(I joined Empower) because of the good things they have been able to do," she said. "It's such a positive atmosphere to be around all these people who just generally care about making a difference in the world."
For Gedeon, the work is well worth the effort.
"It's so easy to go and sell jewelry," she said. "By doing these simple things, you're actually making a difference in these kids' lives in Africa. You're actually sending the kids to school."
As the home base of Empower operations, the Ohio University chapter has participated in several international festivals and organized numerous concerts on behalf of the foundation. This past fall, the team attracted nearly 500 people to its Run to Empower 5K race, raising $16,000 for the campaign. The 2009 Run to Empower 5K will be held on Oct. 10.
With help from student volunteers at Ohio University, the campaign is spreading. Currently, Empower chapters are in place at Ohio State University, Miami University of Ohio and the University of Dayton. Sherrow's hope is that Empower will eventually spread to university campuses nationwide.
Profits from the Empower campaign directly benefit children in local Ugandan villages through school building projects, school lunch programs, health care and school supplies. Besides supporting access to education, the campaign also helps families through various income-generating activities. In 2008, the campaign raised more than $50,000 in campaign donations.
"Sometimes they just need a goat or chickens to be able to take care of the family a bit better," Sherrow said. "So we try to handle it on that level. We don't like to just hand money to people. That never works."
Katie Devlin, a sophomore social work major and vice president of Empower, said working with Empower has opened her eyes to the plight of orphans and vulnerable children in Africa and makes her even more appreciative of the privileges of her own childhood.
"Education is often taken for granted (in the United States) because it's part of our everyday lives," she said. "But the kids (in Uganda) -- all they want is an education. I believe everyone is entitled to that. They deserve an education."