It only takes one person to make a difference.
After devoting the past 10 years to her nonprofit Sylvia’s Children, anyone who has met New Jersey resident Sylvia Allen, 76, would undoubtedly agree she has helped make life better for more than 1,000 children in Mbiriizi, Uganda.
Allen journeyed to Africa with another mission group over a decade ago. It was an eye-opening trip; the last stop was the village of Mbiriizi, where she witnessed extreme poverty and one-third of children living as orphans due to the AIDS pandemic. They visited the Mbiriizi Primary and Day School and as they were leaving, Allen was invited by the head of the school to be the children’s adopted grandmother.
The elderly are revered and respected in Uganda, and Sylvia was honored to have been asked. She happily obliged, but knew right then that she needed to do more than accept an honorary title. Possessing a keen business sense, unyielding conviction and a fearlessness to talk to others, she returned to the States and founded a non-profit called Sylvia’s Children to raise money so that more orphans could attend school.
Cut to 10 years later, and review a list of accomplishments, and you would agree Allen certainly has done much more. With little more than sheer determination and grassroots efforts, Allen has helped to raise over $800,000, all of which has gone directly to the school. (See attached achievements list)
In addition, she has been to Uganda 18 times with the 19th trip planned for June 13-25. Each trip features a number of repeat travelers – those who have traveled with her before – and people who are going for the first time. “What’s exciting about this trip is that it is our tenth anniversary celebration and we have ten people going,” stated Allen. And, what a celebration! Here is the plan for the week:
On Monday and Tuesday Sylvia’s daughter Michele Costa, has planned Ugandapallooza featuring games such as duck duck/goose goose, three legged races, potato sack races, relay races, soccer competitions, and more. On Wednesday the entire school is going to clean the village of trash … it is our reinforcement to the children about protecting the environment. On Thursday we will do a parade through town and on Friday, it is party day. We have a special birthday cake for the orphans at the school (250) because they don’t know when their birthday is. In addition we serve lunch to the children, parents, guardians and local community officials. Lastly we have an afternoon of wonderful singing and dancing and performing by the children. On the final two days we go to Paraa Lodge in Northern Uganda and go on safari. This is the only area in Uganda that has giraffes (and, of course, lions and elephants and warthogs too!).
Sylvia’s Children has been able to build a well for fresh water, a boys’ dormitory, an addition to the girls’ dormitory, three new double classroom blocks, a school playground, ten-unit housing for teachers, a fully stocked library, an internet-equipped computer lab, a building and sewing machines, and will soon finish construction on the school’s new medical clinic. In addition, the school has hired a full-time nurse and a sewing teacher, and also has started a science club and arts and crafts club, making it the only school in Uganda that offers electives.
In the past 10 years, enrollment in the school has grown almost 30 percent, and the charity’s mission has expanded to include cultivating a sustainable, entrepreneurial economy at the school. Sylvia’s Children has been able to incorporate a chicken farm, corn-milling business, uniform sewing trade, and an arts and crafts cooperative, in addition to the medical clinic. All of these will not only strengthen the economy of the village, but also provide essentials on a practical, every day level for the school.
Along the way, Allen has touched the lives of many with her charity. Early on, she saw the benefit of donors experiencing first-hand what the money was supporting. She began enlisting travelers to go with her to the school, a concept now commonly called “voluntourism”. She travels there three to five times a year and has brought over doctors, dentists and nurses, who have helped to save lives by providing vaccinations and identifying and helping treat serious illnesses and injuries in addition to creating medical files for each child at the school to track their growth and progress.
Several of the people traveling on these trips have been so touched by Allen and the experience they were inspired to go one step further for Sylvia’s Children. One such person is Vicky Tucillo. Tucillo traveled with Allen to the school in 2006. That Christmas, knowing what an impact the trip had on her, Tucillo’s husband donated funds to build the school a library in her name.
With the dogged determination of an evangelist, Allen has spent the last ten years talking to practically every person she meets about the charity; soliciting sponsors, donations and items for the school and its children. Allen, whose business requires her to travel throughout the country and world, also involved her friends, family and local community, through churches, schools, organizations, all of whom have chipped in their time, money or other support, from teenagers organizing “Battle of the Bands” at their local high schools to a handful of New Jersey Starbucks stores raising donations by way of twice yearly in-store clothing drives.
An example of what Allen likes to call “children helping children”, Allen partnered with one of the local elementary schools to develop a global relationship where the students from each school could exchange letters and learn from each other. The students at the Joseph J. Catena Elementary School in Freehold Township were even able to talk to their counterparts via a Skype chat. So moved were the children to the realities of life in Mbiriizi, they held fundraisers and raised enough funds to pay for a playground at the Mbiriizi School.
These efforts have generated not just the previously mentioned cash, but also have resulted in the fulfillment of special requests – toothbrushes and toothpaste, over 1,000 pairs of shoes and socks, medical supplies, musical and sporting equipment, personal care products for the female students and more.
All of this activity is finally culminating in the widespread exposure Allen has sought for so long for the school and its students, giving millions of people a unique glimpse into an important issue and different culture. For example, Sylvia’s Children was recently featured on Fox 5 News in New York, Fox 9 KMSP in Minneapolis-St. Paul, in The Huffington Post, and in a special segment entitled, “On the Road: Hope from Minnesota,” on ABC’s Minnesota affiliate, KSTP as well as ELLE and other international magazines.
“This has been the most exciting project I have ever undertaken my life” said founder Sylvia Allen. “I am so lucky to have this opportunity to help other people have a better life through empowerment and education.”
For more information on Sylvia’s Children, visit www.sylviaschildren.org, or call 732 946 2711.