02 5 / 2013

"Ddegeya will always carry your footprint, just as you will carry it’s mark on your heart.”  (at Ddegeya Village)

"Ddegeya will always carry your footprint, just as you will carry it’s mark on your heart.” (at Ddegeya Village)

21 4 / 2013

"Dear Biz,
How are you now days? For me I am okey.
Teacher Biz, I don’t want to tell you bye or see you when you are leaving Uganda but the time will reach when I have to do it. I will be very sad and actually I will cry.
Teacher Biz, are you ready for the journey? Will you give me a special promise? Biz, will you buy for me a ball.
In my conclusion, thank you for all you have done for our school. You have lead to development of the school. May the Lord Bless you.
Your loving son,
Lulangwa Marvin Mark"

was cleaning out my backpack and found this little white paper folded up ever so perfectly, a parting letter from my student and Engeye scholar, Lulangwa Marvin Mark

21 4 / 2013

"Re-entry back to the States can be rough, but it is also a new chapter—a beginning, and you get to write the ending! I am so proud of you. You have touched so many lives and Ddegeya will always carry your footprint, just as you will carry it’s mark on your heart."

on leaving Ddegeya, Lorrie Lynn King

20 4 / 2013

"teacher Biz, today feels like a dream"

20 4 / 2013

St. Gertrude’s Primary school enjoyed quite a wonderful finish to their first term of the new year. On Wednesday of last week the school was visited by local talent in Masaka, singer and songwriter, SK Brian, and professional dancer, Kaderick Kabano. The students were absolutely thrilled to receive some lessons from these two and were eager to get up and volunteer and learn new dance moves. Kaderick led an intense dance lesson teaching the kids some simple and some complex moves, and at the end of the session SK Brian performed for them! All of the kids had heard of these two from Masaka and were above and beyond excited to finally get the chance to meet them in person and work together with them. 

Excitement only continued the following day. About three weeks or so ago, I had pitched a proposal to the Engeye Scholars board to sponsor a class trip for Primary 7. Most, if not all of these kids in this class, have not traveled out of the village of Ddegeya- so this is a HUGE deal! Co-founders of Engeye Scholars, Elaine Pers Hickey and Theresa Weinman happily accepted the proposal and sponsored the trip.  And so, on Thursday April 18th, the entire primary 7 class, along with Headmaster, Deputy Headmaster, and Class Teacher Andrew, journeyed to the Entebbe Zoo, Lake Victoria, and Kampala’s amusement park, Wonder World for their class trip.

We departed in two matatus from Ddegeya around 5 AM and arrived promptly at the Entebbe Zoo by 10 AM. Here the students enthusiastically observed rhinos, giraffes, ostriches, lions, leopards, cheetahs, wildcats, monkeys, camels, kobs, zebras, nile crocodiles, otters, and much much more. I cannot even tell you how much joy it brought to watch these kids face light up as they saw these animals for the very first time in their life. For many of them, they described it as a ‘dream,’ and that it was. 

After an eventful and informative morning at the Zoo we headed to the shores of Lake Victoria where we enjoyed a delicious lunch. The evening before the clinic chefs, Prossy and Susan, prepared nearly 15 kilos of rice and peas for the kids. These kids can eat let me tell you. It was such a nice change from their everyday posho and beans and they were so excited to enjoy their meal over some soda as well. After our lunch we all piled back into the matatus, calorie coma stricken, and headed to Wonderworld in Kampala. One of my students was moaning in pain from being so full, and looked at me and made a pretty remarkable reference toCharlotte’s Web, the book we just completed, and said, “teacher Biz…. my stomach is almost as swollen as Templeton’s was at the fair….”  HAHAHA flipping loved the reference, so spot on. 

Some dozed for a bit on the trip back into Kampala, but when we finally arrived to Wonderworld the entire attitude in the taxi was lifted.  Screams, shouts, chants, songs were heard all around. We entered the park together and enjoyed several rides. Some cried with fear, some cried with joy, but most importantly I have never seen these kids smile so much… They were having the time of their life.

After spending a couple hours on the rides, many of the kids went swimming for the very first time in their life. They raced down the water slides and swam the afternoon away. Most kids really didn’t have a bathing suit, so many of them were swimming in their uniforms. Quite the scene, lets just say.

By the end of the day these kids were exhausted and all slept on the way back home. I am so incredibly grateful to the support from Engeye Scholars for providing this incredible, unforgettable opportunity to these kids. This trip would have not happened if it were not for their support and for all of our donors back in the US. To each donor, to the founders Elaine and Theresa, I speak on behalf of everyone, we are eternally grateful!

15 4 / 2013

whirlwind accompanying photos!

15 4 / 2013

(around march 21-march 27)

It was early evening at the clinic and it was one of the nights where our ‘wifi’ was managing to work. Oddly, not sure why, but Facebook seems to work better here than my email, so that is usually how I have managed to stay connected to everyone back home. So I was sitting there catching up with some friends, one in particular, Mike Stangle. He had extended an invite to me and my sister to attend his cousin’s wedding on the weekend of March 23rd. What a fun idea I thought, my sister would go with Mike’s older brother, Dave, and I would go with Mike. We had grown up with these brothers and go all the way back to Menands school, a primary school in our hometown…  it would be fabulous sister-brother time. But sadly, I had to decline seeing as I was in Africa and really could not take a quick little trip back just for a wedding….. or so I thought.

The next day, Mike forwarded me this absolutely hysterical craigslist ad that he and Dave had written, jokingly, looking for some other dates for this wedding. Man, can these boys write. Here is their article:

My brother and I are looking for wedding dates for our cousin’s wedding in majestic Saratoga, New York on March 23rd, 2013.

We’ve been told by the bride that bringing dates is “mandatory” so we “won’t harass all of my friends all night” and “stay under control”. Rather than ask some fringe women in our lives to go and face the inevitable ‘does this mean he wants to take it to the next level!?’ questions, we’d rather bring complete strangers and just figure it out. Still reading? In anticipation of your questions we’ve developed an FAQ section below.

Dave, Mike… What’s in it for me?
• An excuse to get dressed up
• Open bar & food all night
• Eccentric/downright dangerous bro-2-bro dance moves (may need to sign a waiver)
• Adventure
• Mystery
• Suspense
• True Love
• Royalties once our night’s story is developed into a romantic comedy*
*if this happens (we estimate the chances at 85%) we refuse the right to let Ashton Kutcher play either of our characters, however, we will consider him for a supporting role.

SO – What are you fellas like, anyway?

Oh us? We’re both in our 20s, single, dashingly tall, Anglo-Saxon, respectfully athletic, love to party, completely house trained, relaxed, passionate, smell great, have cool hair, clean up nice, boast great tie collections, will promise to shave, love our mother, have seen Love Actually several times, controversial, provocative, short-sighted (with a big picture mentality), raw, emotional, sensitive but still bad boys.

What should us ladies be like?

You should respond in pairs as you’ll want to know at least 1 person at this wedding. Sisters (twins?!) are preferable, but we’ll take friends, or even enemies. You should be attractive or our aunts will judge you, but not TOO attractive or one of our uncles might grope you. You should be relaxed and easy going as we’ll probably make up flattering lies about you on the spot. You should own a dress, or be able to acquire one because we don’t have any. If (when) you respond you should send some pictures of yourself so we know you’ve met the above requirements. Feel free to include a resume; this is a classy wedding and we’re looking for well-rounded women. Interesting/unique pairings are encouraged; don’t be afraid to make yourself stand out!

This feels kinda creepy, are you guys Craigslist killers?

No. Well, if you want to be techni.. nevermind. No, we aren’t. We just genuinely want to do something different and we don’t see any other way to approach it. What would verify our normalness? Facebook? Instagram? We can have a pre-date screening (interview) prior to the wedding and play 20 questions over a coupla cocktails if you’d like?

We’re IN! What now?

First off — smart thinking. Email us, send along some pictures, information, high school athletic stats, questions, etc. We’ll take it from there.

Alright, so here I was, night sky above me at Engeye hysterically laughing at these two brudders. Such a well written, hysterical article. 

Within days the article went viral on the internet. Next thing I heard was that they were being interviewed by the Today Show, USA Today, ABC Nightline and Dateline, Anderson Cooper, Huffington Post, and on a bunch of other miscellaneous websites, radio stations, and magazines. They received over 2,500 responses of other ladies really wanting to go to this wedding with them and went on over 200 dates.

Time was getting down to the wire, and in a conversation I had with Mike, he said, what if we could get you a flight home and you could drop Engeye and the Minerva Fellowship’s name? My gosh, I was hoping to get home and promote Engeye and the Minerva Fellowship myself, but I never dreamed it would be able to get on a national level. How could we pass up this opportunity? 

And so on the evening of Thursday, March 21st, at around 8 PM Ugandan time, we started looking up last minute flights to get me back for the wedding that was the following Saturday. Internet being what it is here in Uganda, it was a great challenge for me to look up any flight information. Luckily my Pops was working from home that day and was able to look up the flights. Mike, Dave and my sister Lauren were all at work when this was happening since it was early afternoon for them. We found a reasonably priced flight, given the last minute-ness of this whole thing. My dad confirmed he had purchased the flight through Turkish Airlines, which frankly, I had never even heard of. And this flight would be leaving at Friday morning at 5:20 AM. When he asked me if I preferred, “window or aisle,” it hit me that I was actually going home and this was literally happening. I could not even believe it, none of us really could actually.

Was I technically even allowed to leave my fellowship? Under any other circumstances, unless there is a family emergency, absolutely not am I suppose to leave. I sort of felt that this was a once in a lifetime opportunity, so I communicated with Hal Freid and Tom McEvoy about this last minute trip hoping to seek some approval. This was tough since Tom was also traveling through Africa and tough to get in contact with. But somehow, someway, I got a response back from him granting me approval, with one tip of advice: “Be prepared for re-entry shock Biz.” Seriously, truer words have never been spoken.

And so the next issue to address was how the HECK was I going to get from Ddegeya Village to the Entebbe Airport? At this hour there were not the usual matatu’s passing through the village for me to hop on to get to the airport. I could not call a special hire car since it was very last minute. I picked up the phone and called my friend Brian who lived in Masaka, and threw a hail Mary and asked if he might be able to give me a lift to the airport. No questions asked, he said, “sure I will be there in 20 minutes.” Ummmm… I just couldn’t believe how things were falling together! He was there to pick me up from the clinic at 11 PM and we left for the Entebbe Airport, which is about a 4.5 hours drive.

On our way to the airport I had my modem set up on my laptop, communicating to my family that I was safe and sound and on my way to the airport, and then I received an email from a lady from ABC Nightline congratulating me for being the chosen date with the Stangle Brothers…. HAHA. Seemed like a dream to be honest. She asked me to take some footage of my trip from Uganda and to take a ‘selfie’ on the airplane and send it to her. Almost fell out of my chair when I saw an ABC lady using ‘selfie’ in the email, flipping loved it! 

And so I arrived at the airport with plenty of time to spare. Bought some Amarula from the Duty Free store for the bride and groom to be, and had some time to take a breather before flying. 

Now, Turkish Airlines exceeded any and all of my expectations. The service was incredible, food quite delish, and not to mention, the plane was equipped with wifi and an impeccable movie selection. Not only was my most favorite episode of Friends (The one where Joey speaks French) available, but other classics like the Sandlot, Richie Rich, Blank Check, Home Alone, and many many more. I was in heaven. OH, and I had the entire row to myself! I can go on and on about Turkish Airlines… 

After a 23+ hour travel trip, I arrived safe as could be at JFK at 6:20 pm on Thursday, March 21st. My body was feeling quite confused, but I was shaken into reality when I stepped out into the blistering cold with my sandals and tank top on. Hey, I’ve been in Uganda for the past 8 months sweating up a storm, didn’t think I would be needing a coat of any kind. Have to admit that it felt pretty nice after the constant heat in Uganda, though.

My friend Josh arranged for a car to pick me up from the airport and take me to my sisters apartment. And it was there that I was reunited with my sister and my best buddies Josh and Ali who live in NYC. It was a dream, seriously, it just felt like a dream. 

And so after the most epic travel day to date, I was home. Just like that. The following day, my sister and I were interviewed by ABC Nightline where I was asked what my story was and what I had been doing in Uganda. I did my best despite my jet-lag to attempt to put into words what it is I have been doing. Most importantly, I explained the story of the Engeye Health Clinic and the story of Union’s Minerva Fellowship, and that is what was most important. At the end of the day, it is up to the producer to decide what goes into their story, but at the very bare minimum those two names will be on national television, and I think that will only bring about great things for both Engeye and Union College. 

After having a camera jammed in our face, my sister and I, Dave and Mike, and Dave’s bull dog Frank, piled into a rent-a-car and headed back home. It was just amazing to be reunited with everyone. I could not sit still in the back seat knowing that I was finally going to get to see my mom after such a long time. I had been able to see my Pops when he came to visit me in January which was incredible, but it was my mom who I had not been able to embrace for a whole 8 months. When I finally did get to see her, she wouldn’t let me go. And quite frankly, I didn’t want to either!

Later that Friday evening I was reunited with my entire family. Now, as some of you know, my parents separated back when I was 16, so my new family is much much larger, and I like it that way. My dad and his girlfriend Cindy, my mom and her fiance-to-be, Michael, Lauren, my step-sister Erin, and I all had a wonderful dinner together. It was one of the most amazing nights to date. Everyone got along, everyone laughed, everyone smiled, and most of us cried (think by now you know we’re just emotional family).  I have never felt so comfortable and happy with everyone under the same roof, it was phenomenal. 

The next day, Saturday, was the day of the wedding. I had managed to find a dress for the occasion in NYC with Lauren and we were all ready to go for this wedding. But first thing was first, we had to go to our old stomping ground, Menands School. We absolutely had to go to the playground that was pretty much the epitome of our childhood. Lauren and I, my mom, and Erin and her puppy George, all were swinging on the swingset screaming together the classic “Miss Susie had a steamboat, the steamboat had a bell DING DING” song and acting like we were 5 years old. Mike, Dave, and Frank also joined in for some of the fun. It was a necessary stop to make before heading to Saratoga for the wedding.

We set out at around 2pm for the 5pm wedding. Now there we were, all 4 of us to one room, running around trying as quickly as possible to get ready. Lauren and I had our own mirror to share and I had started to straighten my hair since I finally could for the first time in 8 months, while Lauren was positioned over me fighting for the mirror trying to get her make up and hair done. I obviously was sweating an obscene amount (I have a sweating problem) and my straight hair was slowly turning curly. And so I decided to take a break to help Lauren zip up her dress. 

Let me try to explain. Ladies, you know how much of a challenge it is to zip a dress up over that seam right in the upper torso. Yeah, that one. So I had just gotten over the hump and needed some muscles to finish the job. We called Dave to assist with this part, and he took over. Welp, in his fearless attempt somehow the zipper managed to break off and there was no shot in hay in fixing the damn dress. It was one of those moments where you didn’t know whether to laugh or cry… and a little bit of both happened. Luckily Lauren is always prepared and brought a back up dress. 

In all of this chaos, half of my head of hair was straightened, and we had 20 minutes until we needed to leave. I had to make a game time decision and decided to dump my head in the sink and just embrace my curly afro for the night. Threw on my dress and shoes and did my make up in a casual 5 minutes and we were running out the door to catch the trolley to the wedding. 

Never a dull moment lets just say. 

We got to the wedding which was a beautiful, simple, lovely ceremony. I think my favorite part was watching the bride and groom take to the aisle after exchanging their vows as ‘Walking on Sunshine’ blared in the background. Epic.

We got to meet the extended family. People came up to me and said “OH, you’re the Ugandan!!!??” Couldn’t stop laughing. But I think I was just most happy to finally take to the dance floor with my sister and be with her after such a long time. In addition there was a memorable dance off with the brothers, and a lot more ‘sis-to-sis’ dance moves than ‘bro-to-bro’ dance moves.  All in all, it was a great time. The food was incredible, and the music was sensational. 

Sunday we woke up feeling great, had a delicious brunch at Max London’s in Saratoga, and we headed back home to Menands. Lauren and Dave went back to NYC and Mike went back to DC, and just like that it was over. Gosh, no matter where you are or what you are doing, time just escapes you!

The next couple of days I had home were just a roller coaster. I had gone from quite possibly the slowest pace of life to the fastest pace of life in a blink of an eye. I was amazed by simple things I had normally taken for granted: running water, toilets, hot showers, refrigerators. My first trip back to Target I was going through every aisle with my jaw dropped. I just forgot everything that we have back home, and how it easy it is to get what we need. Back here in Uganda, you have to work much harder to find the things you need, and there are a hell of a lot less ‘things’ no doubt. I drove a car for the first time in 8 months, and had to take it a bit slower than normal. I could not believe how much SPACE there was on the road! Didn’t have to worry about hitting a cow or goat or a boda boda. 

I said it earlier in this post, but it just felt like a dream. Monday evening when I was trying to fall asleep I woke up from a message on my phone from John back in Ddegeya. He had told me that one of our patients whom the clinic had been sponsoring for cancer treatment over the past 3 years had passed away. Now, I had just seen this little angel before I left and I knew that her time was coming. There was nothing left for the doctors to do and the cancer had just consumed her entire being. But I shot up from my bed and went downstairs and just fell apart. I could not even begin to believe the timing of this. I was so confused, angry, sad, you name it.

I was going to miss her burial. I was going to miss saying goodbye to her. In a way, I did have the opportunity to say goodbye to her in the visit with the Engeye Staff a week prior to leaving for the wedding. But it just was an emotional rollercoaster. In many ways, I think that I missed it for a reason. I don’t know how I would have been able to handle her burial. I had been to a Ugandan burial before and it is wrenching. It is so vivid, so real. Ugandans scream, shout, and cry, and do nothing to cover their emotions. They get it all out. The body of the deceased is wrapped in the traditional bar cloth, and buried into the ground. For the families that can afford it, there is a coffin, but for those who cannot, there is just the body. It is, without a doubt,  one of the most challenging scenes I have ever witnessed. 

And so here I was, at home, finding out about the passing of Noeline. A brave little eight year old girl who had been fighting cancer for the past 3 years. I feel so lucky that I was able to crawl into my mom’s bed and just cry and cry. I feel blessed that I was able to see my priest while I was home, and he promised me that he would pray for Noeline in his next liturgy. For so many reasons, I think I was better off being home and finding out this news. But the pain is still very fresh, and everytime I see a picture of her beautiful face, I lose all composure and cannot stop crying. 

Right after finding out about Noeline a remarkable thing happened. It was my last day home, and I was trying to pack everything up and get ready to go back to finish out my fellowship. I was at my Dad’s house and the doorbell kept ringing with people coming over, knowing that I was home, with donations for the clinic. I was completely awestruck. The generosity of people completely moved me. I simply could not believe it.

I was going back to the clinic with 3 laptops, a digital camera, speakers, toys, clothes, shoes, school supplies, you name it. I had been trying for the past 8 months to get technology to the school where I teach, St. Gertrudes, but it had not been easy. Now, with no questions asked, I am taking them a relatively new Macbook, thanks to Alex MacAffer, a student of my former high school, Albany Academy for Girls. In addition to that I am bringing them a digital camera, thanks to my Pops. Now up until this point, St. Gertrude’s has kept all their records in notebooks and they do everything by hand- so this is going to be life changing.

The staff of the clinic will now have a laptop to share, and one of our head clinicians, Bridget, now has her very own laptop. Our pharmacist, Resty, now has a smartphone and is going to be set up with her email account right on her phone. In our laboratory, Ritah, also has a smartphone that was donated. The female staff of the clinic each got their own handbag, dress, shirt and a bra. Sorry guys for making you feel awkward reading this, but every girl needs a good bra. They now have their very own and let me tell you—- they could not believe it! 

Back home we all have the technology, the devices, and the means to stay connected, to excel in what we do, etc. Here in Uganda, those items are here but just very difficult to get possession of. It is with the happiest of hearts that I say, it is no longer an issue for these amazing people. They now have the tools necessary for enhancing their skills and knowledge that they already had. And the best part? It took nothing for people back home to want to contribute and to want to make a difference. 

I had taken a quick visit into the commercial real estate office where I used to work, CBRE Albany. I took one step into Carrie Field’s office, head of the marketing department, and saw a photo of me with all the kids in her office. I felt so honored and so touched! In minutes all of my favorite buddies from the office were piled into Carrie’s room and I was trying to give them an abridged run-down of my life for the past 8 months. Very scattered, as I sometime usually am, but they followed. After reuniting with them, I got a call the next day asking if I could come back into the office because Carrie and Dan had gone out to get some soccer balls, tennis balls, and pens for the kids. Seeing as St. Gertrude’s only has one soccer ball, this is going to be a wonderful exciting moment for the school. Also had frisbees from Ann donated, which will be another fun toy for these kids!

One particular donation from my priest left me amazed and overwhelmed. With his extremely generous donation I have provided uniforms to many kids at my school who cannot afford them and am in the process of getting a sign made for the school, one alongside the main road and one on the dirt road in front of the school. 

As you can imagine, I am writing this post with tears streaming down my face. I have 12 days left in Uganda. I have set up tutorials with the teaching staff at my school to teach them how to use the computer, and have been trying here and there to assist Bridget and Resty with their new technology. Luckily these girls and these people are very bright and have been able to self teach themselves and it has been amazing to witness myself. 

For everyone who made the trip back home possible, and for everyone who came together at the last moment to get these donations and goods back to Uganda, I speak on behalf of everyone here, thank you so much. Lives have been forever changed and only great things will continue coming to this unbelievable place. 

13 4 / 2013

Secondary Scholars Succeeding accompanying photo!
From the left: Susan, Nakate Josephine, Harriet, WilburForce, and Hamuza.

Secondary Scholars Succeeding accompanying photo!

From the left: Susan, Nakate Josephine, Harriet, WilburForce, and Hamuza.

13 4 / 2013

(February 24)

The renowned big bad 5: Hamuza, WilburForce, Harriet, Susan, and Nakate Josephine are exceeding at every degree at St. Jude’s Secondary School in Masaka. Of course prior to their send off to secondary school (an absolutely BIG deal here in Uganda) they had the classic new school jitters. It’s funny, no matter where you are in the world, feelings prior to a new start is just universal. “Will they like me?” “Will I fit in?” and even “Will they judge me?” Same same, but different. Somehow.

One conversation I had in particular with Susan I just cannot scratch from my mind. Susan suffered very severe burns some time ago. Since then she has always worn long sleeved shirts and long dresses to cover her burns. This of course has made her stand out from her peers and made her look different. She refers to it as ‘her problem,’ and always wants and wishes that she could just wear the normal school uniform and fit in. She came to me the day we dropped the scholars off at school in tears. She was scared beyond all belief that she would be made fun of. She said with tears streaming down her face, “Biz, I do not like looking different from my friends.” I had to think quickly, the instant cryer that I am I held the tears back and told her, “we are all created different Susan and if anyone is going to judge you based on your appearance that it is a mark on their character and who they are as a person.” 

We shared an embrace that lasted quite a bit and I managed to wipe away some of her tears. I am not sure that Susan will ever fully be able to accept that her skin will always look different than others, but I do know that ‘her problem’ has not stood in the way one bit in terms of her succeeding at school. Since she enrolled at St. Jude’s her grades have gone through the ceiling and she is averaging grades in the high 90s! When I saw her at visitation day, I asked her very simply, “Are you happy?!” and she replied with an unforgettable smile, “Biz, I am too happy!” 

At the end of the day, no matter our age, we are all children in our own way. We worry about what others will think, if we will be well liked, and if we will succeed in life. These 5 scholars have taught me more than I can even explain. They exude an unmatched confidence and charisma. They inspire me, in every way imaginable. 

12 4 / 2013

New year, New School accompanying photos!