POP INTERVIEW: Sylvia Allen on How She Helps African Children Live Normal Lives

Like many of you, I have never been to Africa, nor do I comprehend half of what is happening in that part of the world without having visited. It is difficult to imagine what that world must be like in real life separate from what I have seen in quick news stories or heard from politicians, who briefly mention their own African voyages during campaign pit stops. Sylvia Allen is the founder of Sylvia’s Children, a non-profit charity devoted to helping Ugandan children attain things we take for granted in the modern world, like water, education, health care and books, and e-mailed responses regarding her experiences working with her “children,” as well as chatting the ins and outs of heading the charity and its volunteer work with her biological son and daughter.

sylvia allen

To people here, Africa is this far away place few people visit. The most some people ever experience Africa is from seeing the tour advertised now and then in the Neiman Marcus vacation catalogue. People like Angelina Jolie demonstrate philanthropy’s glamorous aspects. We see the fundraising events and hear people discuss how buying a Feed tote bag is going to help people somewhere else in the world. But what is actually working in this environment like? It can’t all be pleasant photo ops.
Working in this environment is stimulating, exciting, nerve-wracking, frustrating, challenging, awesome and invigorating. We are changing people’s lives! It is also frustrating because of what you list above. What is the real Africa? It is people, like you and like me, with families, homes, jobs, and lives but they are living in primitive conditions because they don’t have CLEAN, running water, proper sanitary facilities and electricity is “iffy” at best. They deserve to have the same amenities that we do.

Everyone is fascinated by a certain culture. Your university education focused on Africa. What made you originally take an interest in African life before you ever set foot on African soil?
My University experience was having to study the African culture during one semester while working on my Masters at Empire State College. In fact, that was “just a class.” It wasn’t until one of my students at NYU invited me to Africa that I got goosebumps because I had studied the country and the culture. It did help that one of my mother’s best friends was a missionary in Africa in the 1930s and ‘40s.

In a place like Uganda, with its extreme poverty levels, how does anyone experience happiness? What do people appreciate there that we don’t in our country? Is there anything positive to be found at all in the sadness?
The sadness is for us. They do everything as a village, caring for each other and sharing what they have. They are not burdened by possessions, status, by “stuff.” Think of the dramatic difference there would be in the world if we worried about each other and feelings instead of “how much can I accumulate.” My only hope is that we can learn from them.

How are you working to change education in Uganda?
We are following the Ugandan Education Authority agenda (because it is a good one) while, at the same time, introducing electives and encouraging creative thinking. For example, we have a building with 24 sewing machines where students can choose to study tailoring. This has never been offered before. They have started a soccer club, a net ball club, a commerce club, a science club, an arts and crafts club … this they did all on their own.

How can people over here help your cause?
As always they can donate money. We currently have 1,005 children in our school (up to P-7), of which 250 are orphans (only 117 are sponsored). $1/day will provide an orphan with lodging, food, clothing, health care, and education. And, we have 68 children in secondary school, of which only 29 are sponsored. That fee for the same benefits is only $1.50 a day! They can go to our website (sylviaschildren.org) and make a donation. They can come on a trip and work with us … we do a medical trip in the spring, a “worker bee” trip in the summer, and then we put on a Christmas party in November (before their school year ends). They can collect the things we need for Christmas … crayons, sun glasses, stickers, pencils, candy, sun visors …or, they can help us raise money. We need another $29,168 to finish the clinic … every little bit helps!

What is the one thing you’ve accomplished so far in Uganda that you feel the most proud of? And how did you feel after you had accomplished it?
The first accomplishment was to get the chicken farm so each child gets one egg, a week. The second accomplishment is happening right now … completion of another chicken coop so the children get two eggs a week, and completion of a 6,000- square-foot clinic that will serve both the school and the village. They are on their way to independence.

You’re halfway through constructing a medical clinic, which won’t be used solely for the school, but also for the village. What will make this medical clinic different from other clinics in Ugandan villages?
Because there aren’t that many clinics in the villages! The closest clinic right now doesn’t even have a doctor and it is 15 miles away. When your mode of transportation is your feet and you are sick, 15 miles is very L O N G.

Without much electricity and therefore, Internet access, there – how do most people in small villages stay in touch with what is going on in the country’s capital, Kampala? Is there a major disconnect?
Everyone has a cellphone and they have 4G service (which is better than I found in Southeast Florida!). I can leave Kampala and by the time I get to the Equator (100 miles away), they already know I am coming! It’s amazing!

A few times a year, you bring people, mostly from America, to join you in Uganda, and at the Mbiriizi Advanced Primary and Day Care School, where you are working. What are these trips like? What has been one of the most profound statements one of your volunteers has said upon being there and viewing it firsthand?
It is impossible to describe these trips because they are like riding a roller coaster … happiness and sadness all in one trip. You work very hard but it is so exhilarating when you see you are making a difference. Most of the people, after going, tell me I have changed their lives and the trip was beyond their imagination. How do you describe 1,000 children, ages 2 to 14, greeting you as you pull up to the school, singing a song they wrote just for you? It gives you chills and tears.

What do you need to accomplish next, before your work in the village is complete? Then what?
Ideally I would like to build a secondary school so that we have the children from 2 to 18. This will take a minimum of $250,000 but would make a wonderful difference in our children’s lives. I only hope that other people get to have the same wonderful opportunity and experience the joy that these children have brought into my life!

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