Lending a helping hand in Uganda

By MELISSA DIPENTO

One afternoon three years ago, Catie Connor found herself watching Oprah at home and was struck by what one of Oprah’s guests was speaking about.

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Connor, now 15 and a student at Cherry Hill West, remembers the scene vividly. The guest was model and actress Iman and her message was about Ethiopian families who could live on just $100 a year.

The image of a family surviving on a yearly income we often take for granted stayed with Connor. Her eighth-grade homeroom teacher at Rosa International Middle School, Rachel Israelite, announced that the class would soon be engaging in a service-learning project.

Connor told Israelite how she felt about the families in Ethiopia and Israelite pointed Connor to teacher Gretchen Siebert.

Connor said the kids at school knew Siebert as the “Africa Lady,” because she’s traveled there frequently and does work with students in Uganda.

After Connor spoke with Siebert and saw pictures of the students in Uganda, she said she knew she wanted to do something to help.

From there, the idea of Stars over Africa, a variety/talent show that raises money for children in Uganda, was born. The first event was held in the spring of 2009.

The show, Connor said, consists of 20 or so acts such as bands, jugglers, singers, instrument players and even a girl whocan solve a Rubik’s Cube in 20 seconds.

No tickets are sold; guests at the show can donate money to the cause. Connor said nearly 200 people showed up to last year’s event.

The first year of the event, Connor said, guests raised $1,000 for a water well in Kigo, a small village in Uganda near the Awegys School Siebert and her family frequently visit.

Connor said she learned that it previously took people from the village three hours to walk to a source of water. When they returned home, Connor added, they still had to boil it before use.

“The thought of not having a sink to get water from is so foreign to us,” Connor said. “I thought we could help.”

The total cost of the water well was $12,000, far above and beyond what the fund-raising event procured in donations. Connor said Rosa students chipped in and had bake sales at the school to raise enough money for the well.

Last year’s event raised money to build a library at the school. Connor’s goal was to have a pod-like structure near the school building and fill it with books.

The Stars over Africa show raised $1,537 last year, Connor said, and students eventually helped raise additional funds.

Connor said enough money was raised to build an actual library near the school. She said she has heard many great stories about the school and village children who use the library often. She said there is a community tree nearby where kids gather to hang out and enjoy the books.

This year, Connor hopes to raise money from the show to build a science lab for the students at Awegys.

Connor said she dreams of one day being able to visit the students at Awegys.

The only thing that is holding her back, she said, is the physical aspect of traveling. Connor said she often has serious bouts with her asthma.

When she first got the idea for Stars over Africa, she didn’t get to do all the planning she had wished she could have done. She spent part of her seventh-grade year in the ICU and was too sick during part of her eighth-grade year to even attend classes daily.

She started her high school career off at Cherry Hill East, but quickly found she was allergic to the building, she said, so she transferred to West. Connor said she refuses to let her illness get in the way of serving others.

Connor said she is looking forward to the Stars over Africa event this year and is hoping for enough funding to come through to build the science lab in Kigo.

Because of the event, she said she and fellow students have gained a new perspective on how others live around the world.

“When you come, you come in with a mindset of what you have. When you leave, you’re so much more grateful for what you have,” Connor said. “They now know how different people in the world are living.”

This year’s Stars over Africa event will be held on Wednesday, May 18 at the Rosa gym, 485 Browning Lane.

The event will begin at 7 p.m. For more information, visit http://www.starsoverafrica.org.

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