Sunday, August 30, 2009

Ugandan Children Bring Message of Hope Through Song to Sandpoint Community

Nine months ago they lived in extreme poverty in Uganda. Their stories are of desperation, sadness, abuse and loneliness. Many of them are orphaned. Others have parents who are unable to care for them.

But today they have a voice; and those voices sing out a message of hope. The children are members of the Matsiko (which means hope in their native language) Children’s Choir, a choir of International Children’s Network. They were guests in Sandpoint for a week in early August and instantly made their way into the hearts of residents.

“It breaks my heart to have to say goodbye to them,” said Tamara Scrimsher, whose family sponsors a child and served as host family to two children during the visit.

Sandpoint was just one of many stops for the choir, which arrived in the United States in June. They will travel throughout the Midwest and western United States until March, sharing their stories and their voices.

According to Don Windham, founder and president of International Children’s Network, as late as last November these children lived in remote villages of Uganda. The fact that they are here is nothing short of a miracle, he said. Getting a passport for a child who is orphaned and for whom they cannot find a record of birth is next to impossible.

“It is difficult to even get citizenship,” said Windham.

Windham and Sandpoint resident Heather Pedersen, who traveled to Uganda in March to assist Windham, participated in several discussions with authorities, trying to procure the proper paperwork to allow the children to leave the country.

The obstacles were many, but Pedersen said she didn’t mind. “I am very grateful for the (country’s) protectiveness of the children,” she said.

Pedersen said she first became familiar with the Matsiko Children’s Choir when last year’s choir came to Sandpoint. They were short on host housing, so she opened up her home. Instead of having children stay there, she housed Windham, staff and other adults.

“We had a week together and I was able to learn more (about the program),” said Pedersen. Her background is in strategic planning, marketing and technical support – talents which she thought could benefit International Children’s Network.

While in Sandpoint this year, the children performed at the Festival at Sandpoint, at an evening fundraiser for Uganda and for nonprofit agencies in Sandpoint, and at area churches. Their energy was contagious and the community instantly welcomed the group.

At the evening fundraiser, slide shows and video showed the land from which the children came. In a country the size of Oregon, children wander the streets barefoot and dirty, in torn clothes, and their faces show no signs of hope.

Sponsorship of $30 a month gives the children hope that in the future they will be able to provide for their own family and will break the vicious cycle of poverty. Something unique to International Children’s Network, said Pedersen, is that sponsorship provides a child education all the way through university.

“We need to remember that ending poverty is not just about feeding them, it is about education,” said Pedersen.

Anna, a 10-year-old girl, captured the audience’s attention at the Festival at Sandpoint and at the fundraiser when she bounced on stage and urged the audience to be quiet and listen. But the audience heard nothing. Anna said that was her for many years; silent and without a voice.

“Now, I have a voice and speak for all the orphaned and at-risk children in the whole entire world,” she said.

She told the audience there are 600 million children worldwide just like her – orphaned or at risk. If they all joined hands they would circle the globe 18 times.

After hearing the stories and listening to the children’s voices people lined up to become sponsors.

For Pedersen, the most moving sight while in Uganda was that of the children praying.

“They are angels’ voices talking to God,” she said of the 10 minutes each evening that the children spent thanking and praising God.

There are now 5,000 children sponsored through International Children’s Network and each one has a special story. And they also have hope. Both Pedersen and Windham say the children have been lied to all of their lives and until now they have had difficulty placing trust in anyone. But that has changed.

“The reason they have hope is because they’ve seen it work,” said Windham.

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