NEW GLASGOW – In the newsroom, we get many requests to help advertise upcoming community events or fundraisers.
We usually publish these events in our community calendar, on our website or even as briefs in the paper. As a media source that is always looking to increase its community content, we welcome submissions from non-profit groups.
Such was the case when Jeanine Parker contacted me recently about publicizing a Rotary Club fundraiser that would raise money for young women in Uganda who want to continue with their education past elementary school.
I could tell from the minute I met Parker that this is more than just a fundraiser for her. It is her life’s passion.
She first did a story with us in 2009, when the Rotary Club in New Glasgow was able to finance a hostel for girls at risk in Uganda thanks to a $19,281 US matching grant from the Rotary Foundation.
"In many areas of Africa, a teenage girl may find that continuing with her education is not an option available to her," Parker said during an interview four years ago as chairwoman of the Uganda Project Committee. "It is not uncommon for school fees for secondary (high school) education to be out of reach. One or both parents may have died of AIDS, leaving these girls with what they feel may be their only option: marrying young and forfeiting the opportunity to complete school.”
Since this hostel opened, 40 girls have been living there and attending Birere Secondary School. Their tuition is paid for by Rotary through donations.
Her message and the important role the school plays in the lives of these women is the same in 2013 as she returns to the Rotary Club of New Glasgow after moving out of the county for a number of years.
Her passion for the project is just as strong as it was in 2009, if not strengthened even more by her three visits to the school and her bond with the students and staff.
“I am not involved in choosing which girls go to the school, but we did have two opening one time when I was there,” she said. “I told all the girls interested that they have to write an essay pleading their case. There was one girl who came up to me and she lived with her grandmother who was raising 17 kids. This girl got up every morning at 5:30 a.m. and made them all breakfast. She would then walk to school for two hours. It’s amazing she wasn’t killed or raped walking to school each day.”
Parker said the girl wrote her essay and was accepted into the school. It is stories like this that make Parker’s visits to Uganda special and her departures even more difficult.
“I was prepared for what I saw,” she said. “The first time I went, I stayed for two months and the next time it was three months. I would help out with some of the English classes during those years, but during my third visit I became more of a ‘mom’ or ‘listening ear’ for the girls.”
The school and hostel are located in a rural area of Uganda that has one road going in and out of it. There are times when poor weather forces the road’s closure and violence in nearby city is always a concern.
“I was told the first time I visited there that I wouldn’t be going anywhere alone,” she said. “I understood that. So when I went to town for supplies, I always had someone from the school with me.”
The more she spoke about her experiences, the more I stopped writing notes and listened as if a movie script was unfolding in front of me.
She told me of challenges these women face on a daily basis to receive an education, all the while learning how to respect themselves.
Parker is a woman who doesn’t hold back when she is distinguishing right from wrong so I assume this is why the school has looked to her as a mentor in many areas.
During her visits, she said she had no problem teaching the young girls how to respect their bodies as well as others.
She recalled one instance where a young girl and boy were found rolling playfully in the grass on school grounds and the girl was quickly taken into the office and reprimanded. Parker said she waited for the boy to be called in, but it was more and more evident this wasn’t going to happen.
“He was over at the soccer field,” she said. “They said they weren’t going to bother calling him in. I demanded it and we found out that he was 18 and the girl was only 13.”
Parker said many of the girls at the school are without mothers or live far away from their families. Their life experiences were limited and they are growing up in a world where being pregnant or married before their 15th birthday is way of life.
Education is key to stopping this, she said. She admits it’s an uphill battle, but one that is being successfully fought one girl at a time.
Parker wasn’t planning on returning to the school this winter because of the expense of the trip, but she will now accompany fellow Rotarians who want to see the work being done at the hostel.
Visit or not, there is no doubt in my mind that Parker will continue to raise funds for this school. When I asked if it difficult to draw in support for a project half way around the world, she smiles and nods her head.
She admits she often gets asked why she would raise money for women in a foreign country when there are girls here who need assistance.
“My own mother will ask me that and I have to bite on my lip not speak,” she said. “The difference is that at least women in this country have some resources available to them they can access. There is help out there. In Uganda, these women have nothing.”
Well, this isn’t completely true. They have Jeanine Parker fighting for them every step of the way.
- Sueann Musick is community editor and reporter with The News. She has been reporting on Pictou County events for the past 20 years.