Notes from Canada: Giving Back to Uganda with Love

Joseph Lukwago, Maria, and Laura-Lynn Tyler Thompson in front of Maria's new home in Uganda. Photo: Courtesy of Laura-Lynn Tyler Thompson

I was born a white child in Uganda, East Africa to missionary parents, Velma and David Freeman. When I was 8 years old, our time in Africa came to a sudden and frightening end.

Just three months earlier, my dad had witnessed the brutal killing of our town mayor in Masaka. The mayor had been dragged through the town on the back of a pickup truck, and then a major in the army openly slit his throat as a warning to anyone who might stand against the regime of the ruthless and unpredictable dictator, President Idi Amin. My father was the only white man he could see, along with a few Asians in the crowd.

Canadian TV personality Laura-Lynn Tyler Thompson spent her first eight years in Uganda. Photo: Courtesy Laura-Lynn Tyler Thompson

Our deportation was ordered shortly thereafter. Idi Amin’s soldiers picked up my father late one night and took him to jail. We had 48 hours to leave. Little did I realize at that young age that everything I knew as normal would change forever.

Years passed, and I found myself reading everything that came across my path on Uganda. My heart stirred for the country of my birth, and I longed deeply to see it again!

My life led me into a career in the media, and I became a national television show host for a programme called, “THE DAILY: with Mark and Laura-Lynn”. Mark was an African American football player, now coach for the B.C. Lions. I would tease him endlessly about my Ugandan birth place and how he was born in the United States. “Who is REALLY more African American?” I would chide.

Last year, my entire family decided that we would all go back. Eleven of us! It would be our once-in-a-lifetime trip to Uganda. I did not realize that this trip would breathe such a fire in my soul that I would be compelled to do something beyond myself, something that would capture my complete attention and change the course of my life.

I was overcome, undone and impassioned by that experience. I went to the home I grew up in and held the hands of those who had held me as a baby. My heart was irrevocably tied to this great land and her people. When I returned to Canada, I had a deep desire to make a difference to the country that owned my heart. I knew I would have to return.

I decided to do a “project”. I just couldn’t shut up about it. I found myself scheming on all sorts of ideas. I would often dream at night about going back and building structures. But, what could one girl really do?

A great lady and friend of my family, Ruth Moody, had lost her husband recently to cancer. She was left trying to find her new reality and where she fit in without her adventurous husband, Doug. I told her of my plans to do a “project” that, as yet, had no firm legs or strategy. She called me and said she would accompany me and would cover my airfare and hotels as a support to my “project”. I was thrilled beyond belief — but what was my project?

It was seven months until Ruth and I would fly off together. Time ticked on and the dull anxiety in my stomach grew with each passing week. Ruth had already paid my ticket; I needed a project — and fast.

In my turmoil, my good friend, Rod Forrest, from Compassion Canada helped me think through what I could do. As a woman, I love my home. If I could change a desperate woman’s life in some way by providing this same comfort I enjoyed, I would be satisfied. He suggested a turnkey home that would cost about $6,500 and would radically alter a family’s life. I said, “Like an extreme home makeover,” and my spirit lit up inside me.

Laura-Lynn interviews Vice President Bukenya in Uganda. Photo: Courtesy Laura-Lynn Tyler Thompson

Which brought me to my next anxiety: How do you raise money? I had no organizations behind me, no one jumping to my rescue with tons of money. I was alone. I wanted to give up! However, Ruth had paid my way and expected me to do something.

This was the darkest part of the journey. The pressure was overwhelming, and I found myself in the fetal position for nights on end, whilst my husband would gently pat me on the back and say, “It’s okay, Hon. We will figure out a fundraiser”. I groaned with fear and insecurity.

In my desperation, one day, I thought about all the great speakers and authors I had interviewed over my 10-year media career. I also had 5 HD cameras sitting in my basement in storage for Trillenium Media Group, the production company I had done my national TV show with. I decided to do a live studio audience taping and invite some pretty significant people to do a night of inspirational speaking. When I asked them, David Bentall, Dr. John Izzo and Dr. Susan Biali gave up their usual large speaking fees to be a part of the evening.

This led me to my next emotional meltdown. ”OK, so I have the project and the fundraiser, but who will build the house, and who is the woman to receive the house?”

One connection I had made was with the Vice-President of Uganda, Mr. Gilbert Bukenya and his Private Secretary, Joseph Lukwago. They had, ironically, visited Vancouver, in October of 2009 and were the most significant political leaders to come in 20 years. Joseph and I became fast friends and spoke many times over the next few months across the continents.

Maria's new home, ready for the family to move in. Photo: Courtesy Laura-Lynn Tyler Thompson

On exactly the day I needed true answers, I received an email from Joseph, the Private Secretary to the VP of Uganda. He made an impassioned, logical plea to allow His Excellency, Vice President Gilbert Bukenya to choose a very destitute woman from his home town and to use his own builders to complete the house. Joseph also threw in the promise of an on-camera interview with the VP. DONE!

The fundraiser yielded about $10,000 from 180 beautiful Canadians. In the weeks that followed, a further $5,000 came in. I was elated and so grateful.

They built the house. And when I arrived in May of 2010 I was able to do an on-camera interview with the Vice-President at his home and hear his heart and see the amazing initiatives he has implemented to help the poor of his country.

The woman they chose to receive the Uganda Extreme Home Makeover was Maria, a beautiful, 60-year-old woman with the most incredible spirit! She had stood as one desperate, lone, poor woman, living in the jungles of Africa. She had no running water or electricity.

As her age gave way to the loss of hope for a bearable life, she wondered how she could continue to care for the three kids entrusted to her or deal with the rain that would flood her entire mud home. Her rising blood pressure signalled that there was no seeming end in sight to the stress.

Maria had cried out to God year after year to be helped, to be seen, to be rescued. By an uncanny, unmistakable miracle, a blonde girl, born in Uganda, moved by an irrepressible urge to make a difference and helped by a generous woman who paid her way back was part of a masterful plan to have people on a different continent build a brand new brick house for Maria. Plus, a new outdoor kitchen, latrine, solar lighting and a house full of furniture were all part of the package.

Maria holds up the symbolic key to her new home, built by the contributions of Canadians and the vision of Laura-Lynn Tyler Thompson. Photo: Courtesy Laura-Lynn Tyler Thompson

On my way to Uganda, in my naiveté, I thought all of this had happened so that I would personally grow and step out of my comfort zone, throw a fundraiser, increase my personal skills, get over my fears, and offer Canadians an opportunity to give from their abundance. And all of that happened. But, it turned out, it wasn’t really about me. This all happened because of Maria, alone in the jungle, needing a miracle and, if not me, who would have done it? I have returned home, floored by the goodness that can change a life, swept away by the power of love and captivated by this thing called compassion.

I am now completely driven to build a village that will bring skills training to overcome poverty. The fears that once engulfed me are gone. I see Maria’s face and several million just like her that continue to cry out to be seen, helped and rescued. I cannot turn my back now.

I will return in November to Uganda. I am beyond excited to see what adventures lay just beyond my own mind’s limitations. I press on towards the call to do my part to finish the course that destiny has laid before me.

Laura-Lynn Tyler Thompson

Guest Contributor

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)

For More Information

Find out more — or donate — at Uganda Extreme Home Makeover.

An Open Letter to My Family – I’m Giving Up My Birthday

No presents, please. Support your favorite charity instead. Photo: © Stephen Coburn - Fotolia.com

No presents, please. Support your favorite charity instead. Photo: © Stephen Coburn - Fotolia.com

Dear Family,

My birthday is next week. I know, you don’t need reminding. You’re thoughtful that way. But that’s not why I’m writing this letter to you.

You see, although I do appreciate it when you acknowledge my birthday by coming over — or calling, if you’re far away — I don’t want you to spend any money on me. No flowers. No presents. Oh, don’t get me wrong. I enjoy such things. But I don’t need them to know that you love me.

If you want to do something to mark my presence in your life, please do something for someone else. I realize I’m not being original in my request. In fact, though I’ve thought of this for years, I never actually asked you to help me with my wish. Now, I’m asking.

So, if you feel the need to spend money on something that would make me happy, do this: Find a charity within the pages of this magazine, and donate to it. You don’t even have to do it in my name. Just give what you can to a cause that resonates with you. It will make me happy. Really.

Here’s the video from Charity: Water that inspired me to finally ask you to help me this year. I think you’ll understand where I’m coming from once you see it. They’re a great organization, doing lots of good for the world.

The story of charity: water – The 2009 September Campaign Trailer from charity: water on Vimeo.

I’d be happy to have you donate to Charity: Water. Or, choose another charity that you like. We’ve written about a variety of causes, many of which I’ve listed below. The list provides websites for a few nonprofits that are doing great work. Pick one of these, or one that’s dear to your own heart:

350.org: Fed Up with Climate Change? Do Something!

American-Nepali Student and Women’s Educational Relief: ANSWER – A Sustainable Future for Low-Caste Children

Environmental Working Group: Environmental Working Group – A Nonprofit with Great ROI

Farm Sanctuary: Hog CAFOs Can Affect Human Health

Greensburg GreenTown: Rebuilding Afer Disaster – Greensburg becomes a Green Town

Grameen Bank: Grameen Bank – Working toward a Poverty-Free World

Healthy Child Healthy World: Healthy Child Healthy World – Inspiring Positive Action for Kids’ Sake

Heifer International: Heifer International – A Sustainable Solution to Poverty

Iowa Renewable Energy Association: I-Renew Executive Director Announces Renewable Energy Workshops and Tour

Ice Age Trail: Rescuing Hartland Marsh – A Six-Year Labor of Love

Jen’s Kitchen – Serving Up Sandwiches and Humanity to Survival Sex Workers

Kiva: Kiva – Make a Small Loan Make a Big Difference

AndePhotos: Children Raising Children – Documenting Africa’s AIDS Crisis

Rays of Hope: Renewable Energy – A Tool for Social Equity

ProjectGreenhands: Project Greenhands – Compensating the Earth

You don’t have to give a lot. Just do what you can. Every dollar makes a difference. Thank you for honoring me with your gift to another. You make me proud.

With love,

Mom/Julia

PS: I’m giving up my Christmas presents, too.

Julia Wasson

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)

Swallowing Your Pride to Put Food in Your Stomach

A week's rations at the food bank — once the soy-containing items are culled. Photo: J Wasson

I was at the local food bank today, having given a ride to a friend. He’s talented and capable, but temporarily out of work and low on resources in this tough economy. The experience was a painful one for him, and I write this with his reluctant permission. He wishes to be anonymous, he says. He’s embarrassed that he has to avail himself of these life-saving services. He’s not alone.

In the short time we were there — possibly 15 or 20 minutes — three dozen people crossed our paths, arriving, waiting, leaving. Ours is a relatively small city of 60,000 or so. I can only imagine the numbers of hungry residents lining up for help in Dallas, New York, or downtown L.A.

Our local food bank is a compassionate place. The folks who go there for help are treated with dignity and respect by the staff and volunteers. Clients are treated like human beings, not like numbers. And yet, there seemed to this observer to be a pervasive sense of embarrassment among many of them. I saw several people quickly scan the waiting room, then furtively watch the door as they waited for their names to be called for a bag of groceries. Others’ heads were lowered and their shoulders hunched, perhaps in defeat, perhaps in an attempt to draw inside and become as small as they could.

Not all reacted the same way. Two women stood at the entrance, openly snacking on a bit of this pastry and a mouthful of that fruit bar. The elder of the two tossed boxes of generic macaroni and cheese onto a worker’s cart as he passed her. “I don’t want no more of that crap,” she said sharply. “Every week, it’s the same bad stuff.” The worker took her comments in stride, smiling. I got the impression that he’d heard the same story many times before.

Canned beef stew contains two forms of soy. Photo: J Wasson

In the center of the reception room, people gathered around a large table loaded with cartons of soy yogurt, wilted greens, organic sour cream, French onion dip, cottage cheese, and a few stray cans of fruits and vegetables with unappealing labels. Bread racks on two sides of the room were loaded with loaves of French bread, wheat bread, ciabatta rolls, and dinner rolls. All this is a bonus; clients can help themselves to as many of these items as they can carry. And they do.

When their names are called, each person gets a single bag of groceries assembled from the donations of concerned citizens and businesses. The intake form asks about dietary restrictions, and my friend wrote “Soy Allergy” in big letters. He might not die from eating soy, but he suffers with welts that last for more than a week. He is understandably cautious.

In his bag of groceries, allowed once per week, at least three quarters of the items listed soy in the ingredients on the labels. Coffee cake: soy lecithin and vegetable oil (may contain soy). Canned soup: contains soy protein. Canned chili: contains soy protein. And soy and soybean oil and more soy and soybean oil. “Go back and ask them again,” I said, trying to be helpful.

“I heard you shouldn’t make trouble, because they’ll remember the name on your slip and give you all the bad stuff the next time,” my friend said. But after looking at the slim pile of groceries remaining in his bag, he went to the counter and asked to exchange. A second try, and the volunteer cheerfully brought him a small bag of Doritos (soy ingredients). He also handed my friend a few cans of tuna and some beef jerky — which one might expect to contain just tuna and just beef.  “These should be fine,” the man said. My friend checked the labels and said, “Thanks for trying, but all of these list soy in the ingredients.”

“What can you eat?” the volunteer asked. I thought he sounded exasperated, but he surely couldn’t have been as exasperated as my friend, who kept his cool through the whole ordeal. A third try, and he brought out two small, sealed snack packets, one containing tuna and the other shrimp. No soy this time, but not enough food to get through the week, either, after having to forgo the soy-inclusive items (canned beef stew, etc.) that had formerly filled the bag.

The canned fruits and vegetables in his shopping bag were the cheapest quality goods on any grocery store shelf. I get it that the food bank needs to stretch its dollars as far as it can. If green beans are priced at three for a dollar for the generic brand (with lots of sodium and water), and the brand name beans are 79¢ apiece, then it’s no contest. The food bank will opt for the cheaper variety every time. Feeding three people wins out over feeding one. But no one asks about the quality of the ingredients; they can’t afford to raise the question.

What struck me as I waited was that almost all of the clients were overweight, and some were grossly obese. Former Texas Senator Phil Gramm (one of Senator John McCain’s main economics advisers during the presidential campaign) is quoted as saying, “Has anyone ever noticed that we live in the only country in the world where all the poor people are fat?” The implication seemed to be that overweight people couldn’t possibly be that poor, because they’re obviously eating. But what are they eating?

Even beef jerky contains soy flour and soy beans. Who knew? Photo: J Wasson

Another friend who had lived with us for a while also took regular trips to the food bank. Most of what he brought back was pastries and breads and pasta. The pastries and breads were the items available daily (rather than weekly) in the waiting area, because stores freely offer those items as their expiration dates pass. Like my friend today, he could take as many of those as he wished. So what does a hungry person do when nutritious food is hard to come by, but starches are plentiful? What would you do, if your belly was aching to be filled and that was your only option?

It’s a vicious cycle, of course, as malnourished people have difficulty mustering the energy to get a job. And people without a job have no money to buy healthy foods — for themselves or their children. Malnutrition also begets despair, and despair often feeds its belly with comfort food. Comfort food — the pastries and breads and pastas — lure the poor onto a treadmill that fattens them. And being fat begets inertia, so that getting a job becomes less of a goal — and less of a possibility — all the time.

So much for my penny psychology.

What I learned today — the takeaway that I would like to share with you — is this: When you have the wherewithal to donate to a food bank (and, unless you’re receiving food there yourself, perhaps you do), please choose selections that will provide first-rate nutrition. Sure, everyone loves a guilt-filled snack now and again, but try to remember how much healthier it is to munch on trail mix or dried fruit. Donate food (or funds) with the sobering thought that one day you, too, could be on the receiving end of the generosity of others.

Oh, and it would also be helpful if you could find some foods without the ubiquitous soy. (Read the ingredients label.) Someone who’s hungry may thank you.

Julia Wasson

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)