Source: Kathy Gibbons, www.record-eagle.com

A Journey of Hope: Couple spearhead project to help Ugandan children


TRAVERSE CITY -- Uganda is worlds away, but it couldn't be closer to the heart for LuAnn and Klaus Heinert.

Earlier this year, the Traverse City couple traveled to a small village near Kampala, Uganda, to visit the Bitone Home/Troupe for Disadvantaged Children. Founded in 2004, Bitone's mission is to house and nurture orphans and homeless children whose lives were turned upside-down as a result of civil war in Uganda.

When the Heinerts visited Bitone, it was on the strength of a broad base of support back home in the U.S. A member of the Rotary Club of Traverse City Sunrise, Heinert brought Bitone to his club's attention after a representative of the home was in Traverse City a few years ago.

Branco Sekalegga, a young Ugandan musician, had come to the area to give a presentation on Bitone. The home currently houses 25 children, focusing on helping them rebuild their lives and boost self-esteem through dance, music, drama, craftsmanship and leadership. Some of the children also participate in a troupe that performs traditional Ugandan music and dance. The overall goal is to not only help them grow up safe and with an education, but to launch them into young adulthood with direction and purpose.

Sekalegga founded Bitone in 2004 with some peers from Makerere University. Klaus Heinert said Sekalegga himself had a hard life as a child growing up in Uganda, and wanted to do what he could to help ease the burden for children in similar straits.

"There are about 2 million orphaned or disadvantaged children in Uganda ... who are not being taken care of," said Klaus, a department manager in landscape architecture and planning for Gosling Czubak Engineering Sciences in Traverse City.

LuAnn, currently program director for volunteer services and Workers and Wheels for Goodwill Industries of Northern Michigan, invited Sekalegga to stay at their home while he was in Traverse City that year. During that visit, they learned more about Bitone and its mission -- and its need for financial and other support.

As chair of his Rotary club's international committee, Klaus saw an opportunity.

"I thought, 'Maybe there is something we can do to help,'" said Klaus, noting that getting involved with the Bitone project has also tied in to his Christian faith.

About two years before meeting Sekalegga, Klaus had participated in an Emmaus weekend, which he described as a process "to help you with your faith journey." At the event, he bought a Michael W. Smith CD.

However, he didn't listen to it closely until he happened to play it in his car at the time he was contemplating trying to get involved with the Bitone project.

On came a song, "We Can't Wait Any Longer" that included a chorus from a Ugandan children's choir.

"Another child is laid to rest
"Another day of hopelessness, so
"How long it will go on?
"And every day we're on the fence brings
"Another fatal consequence ..."

"It was like a lightning bolt," Klaus Heinert said. "I felt the pulse of energy I've never felt before.

"That just really solidified for me what I was supposed to be doing with Branco and writing this grant and trying to help out these kids."

Not only did his Rotary Club get behind Bitone, Klaus pursued a Rotary International World Community Service grant program through the International Rotary Foundation that could also provide funding if a partner Rotary chapter in Uganda would get on board. Klaus found one that would, and wrote a grant proposal based on the goals of feeding the children, keeping them housed and in school, providing medical attention and helping defray some administrative costs.

Between contributions by both the Sunrise and noon meeting Rotary Club in Traverse City and the Heinerts themselves, they raised $7,000 that was matched with a Rotary District grant.

"I think what was really exciting about this project is around the world, there's a tremendous need for basics, I mean food, shelter, clean water, health care, etc. but this orphanage, for lack of a better word, addresses these aspects but also addressed the culture," said Petoskey's Dr. Jane Millar, chair of the Rotary district grant subcommittee that endorsed the project. "It makes the world richer to preserve all of this heritage and all of this culture.

"I think that's why Bitone was so exciting. It addressed these issues. The dance, the music, the art -- it's all a part of the whole package."

Another $10,000 was secured from Rotary International. The money helped to run Bitone from last December to right now. There's also $25,000 to cover a second year, though Klaus said they're hoping to make it stretch beyond one more year.

Albion College raised money to purchase beds for the boys. The Heinerts' church, Suttons Bay Congregational, just sponsored a fundraiser to buy beds for the girls.

Meanwhile, Klaus said another goal is to help put Bitone on firmer footing for the long term. That's why he and LuAnn traveled to Uganda last May. Besides working with Ugandan Rotary representatives there, they spent hours reviewing accounting and business plans with staff. They helped Bitone obtain a governmental status that would clear the way for them to be eligible for more grants.

But the best part was probably getting to know the children. Some have no parents. Others have one or more parents, but they are too ill or poor to care for them.

The Heinerts rented a bus and took them all on a day trip to a lake; some had never gone swimming before. They went to church with the kids, whose Bibles may be tattered and falling apart, but whose beliefs are strong.

"The kids are all devoted in their faith," LuAnn said.

The Heinerts came away from Uganda with hope -- and fire to do more. In fact, they are personally contributing to the tuition of one of the Bitone girls who has just started college. .

"There is a strong sense of hope -- a strong sense of resourcefulness in them," said LuAnn. "The parenting that's being done there and the sense of values that is being instilled in the kids is heartwarming.

"It just made you want to help them all the more."

On the Web: www.bitonechildren.org and www.youtube.com/watch?v=KdohNh763BM

 Source: Kathy Gibbons, www.record-eagle.com

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