KAMPALA, Uganda — St. Kizito is a Catholic-founded secondary school of Our Lady of Africa Mbuya parish. The parish, in a Kampala suburb, is surrounded by a posh neighborhood with walled fences.

But at the periphery are single-room tin-roofed houses with mud-and-wattle walls. Here the poor, especially from the northern part of the country, which has been ravaged by a 20-year civil war between the government and the rebels of Joseph Kony, live and survive by brewing beer and doing other odd jobs.

While the affluent can afford to send their children to some of Kampala’s best schools, the poor have nowhere to send their children. With this in mind, the Comboni Missionaries, who have been in Uganda since the 19th century, started the school.

When the school opened its doors in 1997, it did not take the administration long to realize they had a big problem. Hailing from poor families and often parentless homes, many of these students came to school hungry and, at times, drunk. They could not concentrate on their class work. Others had escaped from rebel captivity, and their level of concentration was also very low.

But the school administration, headed by Elizabeth Odyek, knew they had to give these children a meaningful education. They realized this could only be possible if they knew the background of each child in the school.

With an enrollment of 40 students, they embarked on an outreach program to visit each child’s home. Once this was done, they came up with a way of dealing with the children based on their findings.

Later on, through the help of the parish priest, Father Joseph Archetti, they sought sponsorships for some of the bright but needy students; this was successful.

Now, several years later, the students have taken it upon themselves to carry out the outreach program through their various clubs and movements. During school terms, the students make visits to the less-advantaged communities around their school and, according to the school authorities, the experience is having a positive impact on the students.

They have visited the main psychiatric hospital in Kampala, Nsambya and Sanyu orphanages, a home for juvenile offenders, Mulago Referral Hospital and a home for the aged and disabled, among others.

Another teacher, Winfred Ogwok, head of the local branch of Catholic Charismatic Renewal, appreciated the impact of the various clubs on the students.

“I’ve seen that members of various clubs readily offer voluntary service, compared to their counterparts that don’t belong to any club,” she acknowledged.

Genuine Generosity

Ogwok also recalled the students’ generosity during their visit to the home for juvenile offenders. Many freely contributed from their small savings, while the school just topped off their contribution to give a gift to the home.

“Even the generosity of the students moved many of the inmates of the home to tears, and to me, it was such a moving experience,” Ogwok said.

Although the inmates were aloof at the beginning, they eventually relaxed.

By the time the school group left, many of the juvenile offenders were still willing to tell their stories. During their visit, the students cleaned the home, played with the inmates and concluded with a prayer.

Club member Patience Giramia confessed that her membership had changed her attitude about others.

“I did not care about others, but this has changed because our members are always encouraged to help those who need help,” she said.

Another club at the high school is part of the Focolare lay movement. Members said they are encouraged to dress decently, love their neighbors and help others.

Last year, the group visited Mulago Referral Hospital in Kampala, and while there, they gave gifts to the sick, made up beds and consoled those in pain.

During the visit, Kabalisa Millicent, 16, said she was touched by the sick in the cancer ward.

“In spite of all the pain they were in, they smiled,” she said. “Yet, I find it hard to smile even if I am suffering from a headache.”

‘Educate the Whole Person’

As to what prompted the school to embark on an outreach program, the headmistress said they want the students to be of great value to society. When new students join St. Kizito, the school’s dos and don’ts are spelled out. There is an initiation program for newcomers, and at the close of every school term, there is a retreat to prepare students for the holidays.

“Our basic concept is that when you educate a person you educate the whole person,” Odyek explained. “We believe that when you take care of the intellect, you must care for the physical and the spiritual being — embrace the upbringing of the child in totality.”

Sister Grace Candiru

is based in Kampala, Uganda.