Building a health center in Uganda | June 18, 2014 | Almanac | Almanac Online |


News - June 18, 2014

Building a health center in Uganda

by Renee Batti

In the era of big-buck philanthropy in which six-figure donations get you a seat at the table and eight figures will mean your name's on the building, a $1,300 check almost doesn't seem worth mentioning. Unless the money was raised, a few coins at a time, by third-graders over a two-week period.

Such is the case with third-graders at Laurel School, who saved their allowances, worked around the house, and staffed lemonade stands to contribute to a $20,000 fund for the construction of a health center in Uganda.

Leading the effort was former Laurel School and Menlo-Atherton High School student Helen Seely, who through the nonprofit Mama Hope spent four months this year in Budondo, Uganda, to help residents there realize their dream of establishing a health center in the community.

The appeal to third-graders at the K-3 school in Atherton was a natural: Helen's mother, Priscilla Seely, teaches one of the six third-grade classes there. All six classes participated, which adds up to about 120 students, the elder Ms. Seely said.

Helen Seely visited the campus recently, equipped with a PowerPoint program to show the students "the progress you helped make — the impact that you had ... and the lives that you helped change" in the tiny African village.

Others were inspired to support the $20,000 fundraising effort after hearing about the third-graders' contribution "because people were so inspired by your dedication," she told them during the morning assembly at the school.

Ms. Seely earned a college degree in African languages and literature several years ago, but when she turned 25, she "had a serious quarter-life crisis," she said in an email. Rather than putting her degree to good use and immersing herself in the "cultures, perspectives and languages that I had fallen so deeply in love with," she had felt compelled to "get a real job."

But dissatisfaction caught up with her, and she quit the job, found Mama Hope, a San Francisco-based organization that supports African communities, and won a Global Advocate Fellowship, eventually traveling to Budondo to help residents create the health center, she said.

Called the Suubi Health Center — "suubi" means "hope" in the Lusoga language — it had been the dream for more than 30 years of Bernard Mukisa, a Budondo native who had "seen too many women die during childbirth, too many children suffer with malnutrition," Ms. Seely said. "He has been a dedicated social activist using theater, performing arts and education to improve his community while gaining the respect and trust of his village.

"Mama Hope discovered his leadership and passion, and decided to invest in his dream. They saw that Mukisa was the man who was going to transform his community."

Ms. Seely lived with him and his family in Budondo, extending her three-month stay there for another month before coming back to Menlo Park in late May.

At the Laurel assembly, she told the children about what it was like to work with the Budondo residents who constructed the health center in a village with no electricity or running water, where bricks had to be hand-made from sand collected in a nearby lake, and a water tank had to be built to collect rain water to supply the health center. She talked about how the community launched an effort to grow passion fruit to sell as a way to support the health center, creating a revenue stream to pay for medical supplies, drugs and salaries.

Helen's mother involved her students in a math project to determine the capacity of the water storage tank being built by the villagers. "We happened to be working on concepts of volume in our math lessons at the time," she said in an email. Helen sent the class the dimensions of the pit, "and we got out our calculators to compute the cubic volume."

The project was exciting for the students, she said, because they felt involved, and it allowed her "to show them how math is so useful and important in daily life."

Helen Seely, now 26, said she intends to return to Budondo. "I've never been involved in a project that has had more impact or meaning than with the Suubi Health Center," she said.

"Because I believe in their vision, I have committed to raising an additional $5,000 on top of my $20,000 goal. I have seen the direct impact of the funds raised, and will do everything I can to support their efforts."

Go to to learn more about the project or to donate.


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