As I reflect upon the amazing past two weeks of my life, it is hard to believe that in that short period of time, I have gained a whole new family. One that is larger than my family in America, newer than my family in America, and yet has been just as impactful in my life. Ever since I joined my schools chapter of U4U my sophomore year, the family that is our organization has been mentioned endlessly. It seemed almost as if the family was some metaphorical concept or idea used to try and strengthen the bond of the chapters. But i have realized that in reality we are a family. We lean upon each other in times of need, we build each other up, we catch on another as we fall, and without one another, we would not be the people we are today. After waking up and getting dressed for my last day in Gulu, myself and the other students gathered around the picnic tables in order to compose letters for some of our most impactful and key family members- the Ugandan staff members of Unified for Uganda. Without these people our family would not be connected and strong in the way that it is. They are the link between the beneficiaries that we all are working to support and the team of students in America working for those kids to be in the program. They are also role models and friends to all of us who have had the pleasure of spending time with them during the trip. Innocent is a mentor who we jokingly say is my twin due to our similar interests, personalities, and the blast that we have when we are together. But I honestly believe that I am undeserving of the title of Innocents other half “Guilty” because of his strength and leadership. The way he leads the children of Gulu Primary and represents the organization is truly amazing and a quality that I can only strive for. Sharon is the firecracker who puts her foot down to command a crowd and display a message that might be hard and is also necessary. She is so wise beyond her years and has inspired me to me a stronger, harder working individual just like she has pushed the children she mentors to be. Fiona has the ability to keep people feel so loved and supported no matter if she is keeping a frantic 17 year old girl calm as she tries to spend time in 6 different classrooms in 1 hour, help a struggling student to feel loved and empowered, or is balancing out the strong personalities that surround her in the office. Beatrice, or Madame PD (Program Director) as Innocent likes to call her, is like everyone’s mom. She takes care of those who need help and makes sure that everyone is being as successful as possible. Finally, Douglas lights up a room with his contagious smile and sweet heart. Not to mention as the U4U accountant he creates the most amazing spreadsheets anyone has ever seen. All of us getting the chance to gather around and write them letters of thanks was a task that could only brush the surface of what a pleasure it has been to be in their company and around them all these past two weeks.
After sitting down with the entire US team to have one final team breakfast provided by our fabulous host and cook, Emmanuel, we went to the office. There we presented our amazing family with their letters. It was so amazing to see them read the letters from us as well as the U4U members who wrote them letters at summit. If only those words could express how much we appreciate them.
Next we had the pleasure of heading back to Pope John Paul II School to see some of our friends. That happened to be our first school visit exactly one week prior and the place where a lot of us built some amazing bonds. As a bunch of us girls walked into the female dorms it was amazing to be reunited with our close friends. Their faces lit up as if it were Christmas morning and we all hugged and laughed. None of he students new that we were returning so the surprise became an amazing way to end our trip. I was lucky enough to spend that short hour and a half with my close friend Auma Sharon. She and I first met when I went on a hoe visit to her house and then continued as I shadowed her at Pope. She has a smile that will light up any room, a sweetness that is stronger than the raw sugarcane I had last week, and we have a bond that resembles sisters more than two people who have met three times. This reminds me of the U4U family and the fact that from thousands of miles away we are all supporting one another and more similar than anyone could ever imagine. While sitting under a mango tree Sharon wrote me a short letter in my journal that I will never forget. As we tearfully said goodbye I remembered her kind words that I will look to on the journey home as a source of comfort and as a reminder that she and many other students are only a letter and envelope away.
For our final Boda Boda ride the US team rode back to the office where Jake, Connie, and Abby remained for a meeting. The feeling of the wind and dirt hitting your face as the small villages between the school and Gulu pass by is one of the most beautiful views I have ever seen. The rest of us grabbed a quick lunch and then returned to the Iron Donkey to pack our bags. Once that sad task was completed, we went to dinner with the entire U4U team that was in Gulu. We laughed and shared stories while consuming some absolutely wonderful Ugandan food. Sharon even took sometime to tell a group of us the story of how she met her adorable daughter, Sydney’s dad. It truly warmed my heart, especially as she reminded us that all love stories are great.
Next came our dreaded goodbyes. Leaving such wonderful people was enough to put a group of us into full blown sobs. Hugs were exchanged, and Sharon kindly reminded me to save my tears for the shower and to know that this is not “goodbye”, but rather “I will see you later”. I know that statement is true and I can’t wait to see them all again. To wrap up the night Innocent, Patrick, and Michael took us kids to play pool and hangout one last time. It was a wonderful way to wrap up the trip and have some fun.
Coming to Gulu is an event that really did change my life. I have learned that life is nothing if you don’t have people to share it with, that joy can be found in the most unexpected places, that I absolutely love beans and rice, and that family is more than just blood relatives. In the U4U family we are always there to love one another and support each other in times of need. I am so lucky to be a part of that and that I have had the chance to spend two weeks with the U4U Family.