Howard Shapiro never imagined volunteering in Africa. Fellow veteran educator Judy Labow had to convince him that their skills were desperately needed there, especially in impoverished Uganda.
In 2006, Shapiro was on the verge of retirement after 38 years in teaching and administration, mainly with the Sir Wilfrid Laurier School Board, and then as principal of Hillcrest Laval Academy.
His expertise was in helping children with behavioural problems, and he and Labow, who continues to teach in the Jewish General Hospital’s child psychiatry department, had a long professional association.
“She had been to Africa as a tourist and then as a volunteer. That year, I had spent six weeks in China teaching teachers how to teach English. We tried to persuade each other that we needed to do something more in the countries we had been to. We compared notes, and she won,” said Shapiro, now 66.
Struck by the poverty and desperation when he first visited Uganda (and Africa), Shapiro knew he would do what he could there for as long as possible.
Today, he said emphatically, “It’s changed my life, it’s become a passion.” This soft-hearted man gets emotional talking about the resilient Ugandan people, who inhabit a breathtakingly beautiful but troubled land.
In 2006, Shapiro and Labow, now 73 and still working at the JGH, created a literacy program for children in the squalid settlement of Namwonga, outside the Ugandan capital of Kampala. They did this without the assistance of any non-governmental organization or government body. The program is completely self-financed through Shapiro and Labow’s efforts.
They got started through a contact they had with a former Ugandan student at Concordia University, now a deputy minister in his country.
Namwonga, home to many thousands, is a shantytown that sprang up during the years of bloody conflict in northern Uganda between the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) and government forces. More than a million people were displaced.
Mostly farmers and herders, they have lost the skills to rebuild their lives elsewhere, Shapiro said.
The two Montrealers began by choosing 30 “true” orphans (those without mother or father) aged five to seven, who are numerous. They taught half-day classes in basic English, the official language along with Swahili, and some numeracy. Their first classroom was outdoors.
In time, a local full-time teacher was hired and the days became full ones. “We try to follow the Ugandan curriculum – we don’t impose ours,” Shapiro said.
While public schooling is free and compulsory, these children could not pay for the mandatory supplies and uniforms, including shoes. It’s a pittance by Canadian standards, but a fortune for them.
The program has now graduated its first elementary school class, and a few children who have sponsors have gone onto high school.
These graduates were kids growing up in shacks made of salvaged material, with no electricity, no running water, no sanitation, and often in poor health.
“We are changing lives, however few,” Shapiro said.
The program is now in its third home, a private school called Queen Anne’s, which provides a classroom and some administration, but is otherwise separate.
Shapiro shows photos of the children lining up for a chance to get into the program. A few are added each year.
They have proven to be good students; attendance is high, behaviour good, and the dropout rate almost nil.
Their grades have been at or above the national average.
This is a place, Shapiro said, where children, especially the rootless, often fall prey to those who would exploit them for labour, sexual abuse and, as happened at the height of the conflict when Shapiro first arrived, to serve as “soldiers” in the LRA.
“The program gives these sometimes homeless children a safe place during the day, and probably their only real meal of the day.
“Children in school uniforms also tend to be left alone because it makes abduction more difficult,” Shapiro explained. “It’s thought somebody must be expecting them.”
About 80 children have been in the program over its history, about an equal number of boys and girls, which was important to the Montrealers.
Although the program has grown, the goal is not to create another school, Shapiro said, but rather to provide individualized attention to those in most need.
Shapiro spends about a month a year in Uganda, always going separately from Labow in order to extend the time they are there. He’ll be returning in March for two weeks.
More than 30 volunteers, mostly educators from Montreal, have worked on the program for periods of from two weeks to four months.
The annual budget is modest, about $7,000 to $8,000, Shapiro said, and that includes the $1,200, a competitive salary, paid to the teacher.
Besides Shapiro and Labow’s personal networks, most of the funds have been raised by students in his old school board. Shapiro and Labow speak in the schools, and the children create projects inspired by the program.
Contributions in kind, like supplies from the board or shipping from a parent in that business, help. Shapiro and Labow also buy paper-bead jewelry made by Ugandan women, and sell them here for a little extra cash.
“Every penny we raise goes directly to the program,” he said.
More money would enable them to reach more kids, but Shapiro, who was born in Germany to Polish parents who survived the Holocaust by being constantly on the run, is content to make a small contribution.
“In Yiddish, we say, ‘A bissel mit a bissel/ Macht a groyse shissel’ – a little and a little makes a big pot.”
The program is not a registered charity, but tax receipts are issued through LOVE (Leave Out Violence Everywhere), the national community organization helping at-risk kids that was founded 20 years ago by Montrealer Twinkle Rudberg, whose husband Daniel was stabbed to death by a 14-year-old gang member in a thwarted robbery.
Any volunteers from here pay their own travel and accommodation expenses, but are issued a tax receipt, Shapiro said.
He has always felt welcome and safe in Uganda, which in recent years has experienced relative political stability and less unrest. But working in Uganda has its risks, and tragedy befell the program early on.
In 2007, Sandra Barbadoro, 30, a kindergarten teacher at Twin Oaks School in Laval, was killed as a result of a hit-and-run accident while volunteering in Namwonga. (In this former British colony, driving is on the left, which is an adjustment for pedestrians, too.)
“It was the most difficult call I ever received,” said Shapiro, who was home at the time. “I thought the project would be finished, but it survived.”
Shapiro has made contact with the indigenous Jewish population of Uganda, the Abayudaya people, who live in a mountainous region about 2-1/2 hours away from Namwonga.
Uganda is overwhelmingly Christian, but the Muslim population is growing, he said. “Being Jewish has never been an issue. What people respect is that you have religious values, that you believe in God. They may ask you what god you believe in. Just don’t say you are agnostic.”
In his “retirement,” Shapiro, a father of two and grandfather of two, is working again, in part to enable him to continue to keep going to Uganda.
He is now in his third year as director of secular studies at the Belz chassidic community’s boys’ high school. In the summer, he was a consultant to In Real Life, a new reality TV show for early teens made by Apartment 11 Productions for YTV.
While donations are always welcome, Shapiro is looking for people with skills he and Labow lack. He’d like the program to have a website, and would appreciate finding someone who can design and maintain it. He’d also like help, perhaps from a retired lawyer, in obtaining charitable status. Someone who could organize a fundraiser or help sell the paper beads would be welcome.
Shapiro and Labow are also trying to match prospective sponsors with the Ugandans kids.
“Judy and I also recognize we are getting older and have to think about the long-term future of the program,” Shapiro said.
You can contact Shapiro at firstname.lastname@example.org, or Labow at JudyLabow@gmail.com.