On January 10, 2022, Uganda’s schools reopened after what may be the world’s longest pandemic-related closure. Since the closure of schools in March 2020, there have been limited opportunities for in-person education and schools had not been fully reopened until January. An estimated one-third of students will not return to school in Uganda this year. Given the length of the shutdown, many students were pressured to find work and help their families financially. Without school to attend, many secondary school students got married and began families of their own. Additionally, a significant number of teachers have left their teaching positions to find alternative employment and other schools have had to close their doors due to financial constraints. According to a New York Times article, an estimated 3,507 elementary and 832 high schools in Uganda will remain permanently closed.
The Road to Hope (RTH) program, jointly administered by Center for Hospice Care/Hospice Foundation (CHC/HF) and our partners at the Palliative Care Association of Uganda (PCAU), provides financial and social support for vulnerable children who have lost one or both parents and are unable to continue their education. The closure of schools due to the pandemic required an agile response from PCAU to continue supporting the education and well-being of the 54 children on this program. Throughout the lockdown, PCAU continued to support homeschooling and learning opportunities for each child. CHC/HF secured a substantial grant to help support homeschooling and to provide additional psychosocial support, health care and food relief to children and their families who faced additional socioeconomic challenges with the pandemic.
A hallmark activity of the RTH program is the annual Children’s Camp and Empowerment Retreat. These gatherings provide an opportunity for the RTH family to gather, share, celebrate and learn. The children love the opportunity to come together, and there is always a component of fun. Counselors and other resource organizations bring rich content to nurture the well-being of the whole child with sessions that focus on topics such as personal reflection, discussions about self-awareness, coping with emotions, making good friends, relating with the opposite sex and financial management. The Empowerment Retreat brings together the older children to focus on life skills and challenges faced by teenagers.
Pandemic safety protocols did not allow the camp and retreat to take place in 2021. Recognizing the challenge of being disconnected from the children, PCAU had to rethink operations to fit in the “new normal.” Instead of bringing all children from 20 districts to meet in one central place, Kampala, they decided to hold regional retreats. This brought smaller numbers of children together within their respective regions and still provided the benefits of coming together. The goals of gathering the children remained the same – providing social, emotional and psychological support – and the children were happy to gather. The smaller groups also allowed PCAU staff to spend more time with each child and determine how best to support them during this difficult time. PCAU will continue with this regional approach in 2022.
The regional retreats were also a great opportunity for PCAU to introduce new staff member, Anita Balikobaku, to the RTH children. Anita is the new programmes manager at PCAU and now oversees the RTH program. These smaller gatherings allowed her time to begin to get to know the children.
The Road to Hope children were all looking forward to the reopening of schools – to learn and to see their friends again. In January, PCAU worked hard to ensure all 54 children had the resources they needed to return to school and be successful as they resumed in-class learning. With the closure of many schools, they had to seek alternative school placements for many of the children. Not any school will do – PCAU works with each child’s situation to find the school that best meets their needs. This may be a school in their home community, or for some, it may be best for them to be away in a boarding school. PCAU also considers the social support from peers and the teachers at the school. There are several schools that PCAU has developed a special relationship with and have several RTH children attending together. Holy Cross Lake View Senior Secondary School in Wanyange is one of these schools. There are currently four RTH children who attend Lake View, which is run by the Congregation of Holy Cross (CSC) in East Africa. Utilizing the network of relationships with CSC leadership in South Bend, IN and in Uganda, CHC/HF and PCAU have established a strong relationship and feel confident in the education and social support these children receive.