Juneau man helps orphans in Uganda

After orphanage director fell ill, West, then 24, took over

Posted: Thursday, September 17, 2009

Juneau's Chris West, 25, always knew he wanted to be a teacher - he just never imagined his passion would take him all the way to Uganda to become the director of a children's home.

"I had the option either to go into teaching or go and look for a place of real need, so I just was open to any place that might take me," West said.

That's when West contacted Dorcas Children's Home, an African orphanage in the Bukessa district outside of Kampala, the capital of Uganda. After much research, West, along with colleague Kami Coy, of Portland, Ore., started teaching there in January 2008.

"I went to Uganda because I knew it has one of largest orphan populations in the world," West said.

With approximately 2.5 million orphans, Uganda also is known as the birthplace of the AIDS epidemic, West said.

"In the last 20 years, one out of every four people have AIDS, which is just an unbelievable statistic," West said. "But in the last couple years, it moved to one out of every 16, which was due to an incredible international push to get the ball rolling and to get work done there."

Uganda has been plagued with civil war and racial conflict. A group called the Lord's Resistance Army has abducted more than 60,000 kids to turn into soldiers in the last 20 years there, West said.

"It's just this country that is extremely beautiful, yet ripped apart," he said.

Also, the "constant sickness" in Uganda was surreal, West said.

"Malaria is carried among mosquitos there, so quite often kids will come in in the middle of the night with fevers over 100," he said. "They don't have very clean water, so they have worms a lot in their stomach. Constant gashes or bruises; they don't have shoes or anything on their feet, so it's just kind of a constant medical care."

Two months after West arrived, the home's owner and director got very sick.

"Basically there was no other option; they kind of placed the home in my hands," West said.

So, without meaning to, West became the director by mid-March 2008.

"I was a 24-year-old, and all of a sudden, I was raising 25 kids on a daily basis," West said. "It was the hardest thing I've ever experienced in my life. It's not a single hour of the day that you're off. ... It was just to the point where I'd get sick almost every couple weeks, because I was just over-worked and under-slept."

West was shocked to learn of years of troubling misconduct involving the director.

"When we confronted him and told him it was not going to happen anymore, it became dangerous for us to stay in the country," West said.

West never officially reported the misconduct but did document it in a letter to the home's donors, urging them to drop their financial support. In the end, Dorcas Children's Home closed, and more than three months later, West and his colleagues moved the kids into a new home, the Bukessa Children's Home, which has 21 boys and nine girls, ages 4 to 18.

Despite that trauma, "the main thing is that we're still providing and doing the same work that we did when we were there in 2008," West said.

West returned home in December 2008. Although Uganda is quite different, West believes there are striking similarities between the capitals of Uganda and Alaska.

"There is a general sense of community, where everyone knows each other," West said. "There is just a connection here that I haven't experienced in any other town than when I've lived in Uganda, which is what kind of made me fall in love with the place."

One child, Reagan, did not know where his father was, and his mother could not provide for him.

"His mother would just go into the city and just leave him in the room locked up for four or five days in a row without food or anything," West said. "You've got a situation like this where a child doesn't even know how to hug. He just feels this constant abandonment."

But West said it was amazing to see Reagan's transformation.

"He was isolated and didn't accept any sort of affection," West said. "But after months and months, when every day he does feel cared for, every day he receives food and affection, eventually it's amazing - there's no way to get him to stop hugging you."

"Being able to hug kids and to see them seriously change based on having a good bed at night, having clean clothes and water, have a chance to go to school, receiving affection and care, receiving a community - they have just a sense of actual family that comes in a home like that. The kids just go through an unbelievable transformation."

West and his colleagues are holding a fundraiser tonight for the Bukessa Children's Home, which takes about $35,000 to run a year, West said. West hopes to raise around $5,000 tonight. For more information about the fundraiser, call Erica Simpson at 723-2860.

• Contact Neighbors editor Kim Andree at 523-2272 or kim.andree@juneauempire.com.

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