The summer before her freshman year, Meghan Marth traveled to Gulu, Uganda, to visit a friend. Her name was Atoo Irene. She was 7 years old.
Marth wanted to see how Irene was doing. She wanted to see for herself that Irene had not become one of the country’s “invisible children,” the kind who are scarred inside and out as a result of the brutal civil war activities perpetrated by Joseph Kony, the notorious warlord and head of the guerilla group Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA).
Marth and her family began sponsoring Irene at a special school created for the war’s child survivors, and she wanted to calm her fears about Irene before starting college.
Sitting on Marth’s lap, Irene’s light blue school uniform contrasted brightly against her smooth dark skin. Marth studied her face intently. Irene sat quietly and tentatively but happy to see Marth again. It was the second time in two years Marth made the long journey from the United States to see her.
For Marth, though, the trip provided more than a calming reassurance about Irene. It also solidified her decision to attend Xavier as a Community-Engaged Fellow and the direction she chose for her life.
“The trip affirmed that this is what God wants me to be doing and that my choice of college was the right one because Xavier
would value what I was learning,” says Marth, who’s now a junior.
“The students taught me so much about life and they’re full of wisdom about the way they approach life.”
It all began when Marth was a freshman in high school. Her church showed the “Invisible Children,” a documentary about the Ugandan children who were affected by Kony and his guerrillas. Some were forced to become soldiers or sex slaves. Others were injured during raids on their homes. Still others became orphans when their parents were killed or homeless, like Irene’s family, after their homes were burned by the LRA.
Marth was profoundly impacted by the film and wanted to help. Enter Abitimo Odonkara, a Ugandan woman who years earlier started a school for child victims of the civil war. She named the school the Upper Nile Institute for Appropriate Technology, or UNIFAT. During a trip to the United States, Abitimo met with Marth and other students and suggested they help pay for the children’s schooling.
So the students organized Unified for UNIFAT (U4U) at several area high schools. Marth ran the chapter at her high school, and when she came to Xavier in the fall of 2010 she brought her efforts to campus.
The club’s first event in spring 2011 netted $600, enough to sponsor two children. For $300 a year, a child receives books, school supplies, two uniforms, a pair of shoes and tuition, which includes a meal of rice and beans every day. U4U is now sponsoring eight children.
The club also won recognition as student club of the year last year for its work raising awareness about Uganda and UNIFAT.
In September, Unified for UNIFAT brought the UNIFAT Primary School’s lead mentor, Opiyo Denis, to Cincinnati to make fundraising presentations at local high schools and colleges. The mentors make sure the sponsored children receive the academic and social services paid for by their sponsors.
“I know what the children go through,” Denis told chapter members. “I work hard to make sure their school work improves and help them to forget the past.”
For Marth, Denis’ visit assured her that Irene is making progress and has a good chance of graduating from high school. That alone is an important step forward for a little girl whose life was changed forever by a war she knew nothing about.