It’s been 13 years since Holmdel-based nonprofit Sylvia’s Children, founded and operated by longtime Holmdel resident and professional marketing, events and sponsorship expert Sylvia Allen, began hosting trips to the East African nation of Uganda, bringing along a select number of ‘voluntourists.’ Over the last few years, these trips have expanded to include medical professionals, including nurses and dentists, as well.
Since it was initially founded in 2003, the organization’s core mission has been to serve more than 1,000 children attending the Mbiriizi Primary School in Southwestern Uganda. Although it’s located more than 7,000 miles away, the kids are loved and supported just as much as if they were right here in New Jersey. They see their ‘Grand Slyvia’ (their affectionate moniker for Allen), of whom they have conferred the honor of being their adopted grandmother, at least twice a year – and have for more than a decade. And at least twice a year, they also get the cherished opportunity to meet those who travel with Allen to their village, all of whom share gifts with them, serve them special hot meals, spend time with them embracing and playing, and sometimes even saving their lives.
Over these last 13 years (as of June 2016 it was the beginning of 14 years), Allen’s organization has served to create new infrastructure for the school and even the surrounding village, constructing new classrooms, teacher and orphan housing, a sewing building, a library, and even an enormous 6,000-square-foot medical clinic, which serves as a mini hospital for the region. She’s built several playgrounds and fresh water wells, pig and chicken farms, a corn milling business and coffee crop; she’s had computers, books, cooking equipment and even a school bus all donated.
Allen also sponsors 150 of the orphans in high school and 34 in college and technical school annually, and she has raised over a million dollars, all of which has gone directly to the school since she covers all administrative expenses herself.
On the organization’s most recent Christmas trip in November, Allen hosted a group of 11 volunteers, many of whom traveled from here in the Garden State, including right here in Monmouth County. On this trip, just like its other annual Christmas trips, the gathering of volunteers helped the 1,080 children (one-quarter of whom are orphans, due to the HIV/AIDS pandemic ravaging the nation and most of the continent) to celebrate the holiday season with a number of festivities.
After being greeted by the children with song and dance, Allen and her engaged entourage of 11 volunteers spent more than a week attending to the students’ needs, as well as 275 members of the community. The nurses and medical professionals in the group quickly mobilized to take inventory of all of the children’s medical charts, seeing to it that any and all medical issues that have arisen since the last trip to the school were assessed and corrected.
On previous medical trips, through the nonprofit’s quality medical care, it has helped in saving countless lives of those in need, including that of Umar, an orphan sickened with a burst appendix in 2011; Joan, a young girl needing hip replacement surgery; Eveline who was dying of Typhoid Fever; ‘Baby Jjuko,’ born with almost a nearly fatal case of Spina Bifida; and Ibrahim, a 10-year-old boy suffering with third-degree burns on his body. Thanks to Sylvia’s Children and its assemblage of volunteer medical professionals, all of these children’s lives were saved.
There have been joyful times too, including on this most recent trip, such as when the children received their annual Christmas gift bags, which often include fun items such as stickers, toys, sunglasses and candy. They also bestowed each and every child with a new wardrobe – all boys received new shirts, while the girls were given new dresses. Nearing the end of the week, a holiday cake is served, along with a special warm lunch served by the group – normally of ‘G nuts’ (ground nuts) on rice, or a beef sauce.
At the end of the trip, each volunteer, now an informal member of the family so to speak and the village, is ceremoniously presented with their own Ugandan name by the school’s headmaster, Geoffrey; a tip of the hat to the mutual bond felt between both nations’ citizens, and one which often serves as a reminder of the extraordinary link between both countries and of a return visit.