Nearly two months ago, Hermosa Beach resident Amber Beach traded in her school counseling fieldwork assignment for a considerably less cushy internship as a counselor at MercyÕs Village Primary School in Gulu, Uganda.
While there, she will spend a total of four months volunteering as a school counselor with three primary functions Ñ develop student files so the school can maintain records, visit studentsÕ homes to assess living conditions and needs and create extracurricular programs to enhance learning opportunities.
The Gulu region of Uganda was one of the hardest hit during the reign of terror and the LRA mass murders under Joseph Kony that lasted from the 1980s through 2007. Now a peaceful area, families in Gulu remember the violence and fear of a more uncertain time, and evidence of brutality is apparent on the faces of parents and older children who are missing noses, ears and lips.
Beach must take her American schooling in counseling and apply it to work with young children whose families are just beginning to believe in hope.
The school she is working in, MercyÕs Village, was founded by El Segundo resident Jeami Duncan after a visit to Uganda in 2006. Duncan traveled throughout the region and knew she wanted to do something to help the children. Initially, she considered founding an orphanage, but people living in Gulu said that the Western world had provided enough orphanages, what they really needed was an education.
So Duncan set out to build a school.
She raised $250,000 dollars, largely thanks to a six-figure donation from an anonymous couple in Malibu. She then coordinated the construction and hired teachers. The school opened its doors to 89 students in February 2011. There are now 136 students enrolled.
There is an open-door policy for children of any age who want to study, and according to Beach, most of the students are five to eight years old. They are separated by ability rather than age and begin their schooling with a lot of music. Since so many people are illiterate, they initially learn concepts through song.
Beach first met Duncan as a volunteer. They would sell hand-woven bags made by the women of Gulu to raise money for the school. Then several months ago, Duncan reached out to Beach via Facebook and asked her to call right away about an internship opportunity. In limbo between her schooling and full-time work, Beach jumped on the opportunity.
ÒI was sort of a free bird. It was the right time. It took me about two seconds to say yes,Ó Beach said.
Beach, who completed her masterÕs degree in school counseling from Cal State Dominguez, is working on her counseling credentials. She hopes to finish in spring 2013 and needs a total of 600 hours of counseling work under her belt in the interim. Of those, 200 hours must be in a counseling setting outside of a school, so the home visits in Uganda will be ideal in achieving her goal.
During those home visits, Beach must determine who the child lives with, if they are able to study when they go home from school, if they must act as second parents or earn wages at a job after school. The families speak broken English, if any at all, so she has two translators who accompany her on the site visits. She also has to make sure the families are adhering to the schoolÕs no-beating policy, as physical violence is a common form of discipline in the area.
Since her arrival, Beach has also found herself serving as a nurse, cleaning and dressing infected wounds and looking for symptoms of malaria.
Through it all, she sees smiles and gratitude on the childrenÕs faces.
ÒTheir smiles, positive disposition and energy are contagious and addicting,Ó Beach blogged in early July.
One of the largest difficulties Beach faces, beyond frequent power outages, flooding and giant insects, is getting close to the students when she knows she must leave.
ÒI think the biggest challenge, for me, is becoming so attached to the kids,Ó Beach said. ÒFour months is really the perfect amount of time to be able to develop rapport with the students and with the adults, and itÕs going to be really difficult to wrap it up. I hope IÕll be able to plant a seed for what really needs to get started, to put all this investment and heart into improving their lives.Ó
However, she is sure that this trip will not be her last with MercyÕs Village, as a woman Òbitten by the Africa bugÓ on previous visits to Tanzania and Kenya.
ÒWho knows what could happen in a year? But this wonÕt be the last thing I do for MercyÕs Village, I can certainly say that,Ó Beach said. ÒHopefully IÕll just be able to put it on hold and go back after my credentials.Ó
She may even have found another purpose to continue work in Gulu.
One day while sitting in the Internet cafŽ, a teenage boy approached Beach and told her that he was not asking for money but needed to see if his email address worked because he needed it to enroll in school.
She allowed him to use the computer and found out that the email address he gave her was not active. While sitting with him, he shared a story about not having enough money to continue his studies. His mother had left town to work, and guardians were not concerned about his schooling. She agreed to look into his situation and set a date to meet up and discuss his options.
They parted ways, and the next day she went to the school he claimed to attend. When she gave his name, Odong Isaac Crusoe, she said that the administrators and teachers lit up, saying he was one of their best students, but far behind on his school payments. He owed more than $300 in school fees and textbooks.
In the meantime, hoping that his story would be true, Beach set up a PayPal account to raise money from friends and family to directly sponsor Crusoe. With more than $600 in the account, Beach was able to pay off his debt and set up a fund for his future schooling.
When they met up, he was so shocked that he buried his head in his shirt, overwhelmed with tears. Beach made him sign a contract that she would check on his progress, but he must succeed in every class to earn his schooling.
ÒHeÕs a real boy!Ó she emailed to the friends and family who sponsored him. ÒThis is the start of something very special.Ó
Beach is blogging about her journey at http://ugamber.blogspot.com and more information about Odong Isaac Crusoe can be found there.
Information about MercyÕs Village Primary School is at http://www.mercysvillage.com and Beach said she welcomes emails from beach cities teachers about how to communicate or help sponsor the school. The school is already partnered with Coast Christian School in Redondo Beach, but she would love to set up pen-pal exchanges between MercyÕs Village students and children in the South Bay.
BeachÕs email address is email@example.com.