|Suzanne Garr sits among students at St. Mary Kevin Orphanage in Uganda, as they create art that will be exchanged with kids at St. Mary Visitation in Elm Grove.|
The colorful pieces of art created by students at St. Mary Visitation in Elm Grove won't be sent home to hang on the refrigerator. Sorry, moms.
Instead, they'll be sent halfway around the world to Kajjansi, Uganda, to St. Mary Kevin Orphanage and boarding school as part of a cultural art exchange.
St. Mary Kevin is home to approximately 180 orphans and disadvantaged children. It provides shelter, food, security, medicine, education and training in vocational skills. The orphanage has few resources because of the limited government programs and extremely high poverty levels.
Shortly after returning from a 2006 trip to east Africa, Gloria Feinstein, a photographer and who used to live in Madison, established the Change the Truth Fund, an organization that assists Ugandan children who are orphaned due to HIV/AIDS and civil war. The nonprofit helps run the St. Mary Kevin orphanage.
Every year since then, Feinstein has brought a team with her each Christmas to spend two weeks at the orphanage to improve living conditions and spirits.
Suzanne Garr, a local photographer among other professions, stumbled upon Feinstein's book that captured the trips to Africa.
"I wrote Gloria an email telling her I think we have a lot in common — a love for children, Africa and photography. I asked her what I could do to get involved," Garr said.
Exchanging letters, too
In 2010, Garr took up Feinstein's invitation to travel to Africa with other volunteers. Before Garr left, she asked Mary Sue Protz, the human concerns director at St. Mary's, if she and her two daughters wanted to be set up with pen pals from Uganda.
Three years later, the Protzes have a thick and heavy binder of the letters exchanged between two young woman at the orphanage.
"Going into this whole pen pal thing, I was hoping that my daughters would get something fabulous out of it, so they could learn about other cultures, and how other children live. And yet, see the similarities in their lives as far as being a kid." Protz said.
Last Christmas, parishioners knitted caps, bags and shawls for the children as gifts. Protz knitted a shawl for her pen pal, Rose, a 17-year-old high school student.
"You really know how to knit. You are a very good mother. I already wrapped my shoulders in it. It felt like I was getting a hug from you," Rose wrote to Protz.
Protz said she's read every letter several times and they never fail to affect her.
"How neat to think that there is someone on the other side of the world that loves you to pieces," she said.
Learning through art
Each month, St. Mary's students pick a different charity to learn more about. The school calls it 5-11 day. Charity representatives visit the school to talk about their mission. For a $1 donation to the charity, students can come to school in jeans and a T-shirt, a welcomed relief from the uniforms.
In September, the kids decided to learn more about the St. Mary Kevin Orphanage, and it was then that school administrators decided to do the art exchange.
The children of St. Mary's and St. Mary Kevin would create 100 pieces to gift to one another. On the back of each drawing is the child's name, their favorite color and animal, and the grade they are currently in.
The art will be delivered by Change the Truth Fund volunteers when they visit Uganda at Christmas. Sending the letters by mail can add up and take up to three months to get there.
Principal Mary Tretow said the art exchange has been invaluable to the students.
"I think our kids get a whole new appreciation for another culture. The children here come from very well to do families. Just to see a different environment is huge for them," she said.
Garr exhibited the art from both schools last week in the Marian Gallery at Mount Mary College. It was a chance to show off the work to the public before they're eventually brought to Africa.
"Kids are kids no matter where. They play, they run, they color, they share and are curious about other kids. The kids of St. Mary Kevin are so grateful for anything they receive and they love to know that they are connected to kids here in the U.S.," Garr said.
- article by Scottie Meyers for the Elm Grove, Wisconsin community newspaper