The social worker in Uganda turned to Kjerstin Owren, 25, and asked her if she had advice for Joyce, a teen-age mother of twoyear- old twins. Owren, then president of her campus Lions club in Norway, had recently met Joyce for the first time in her small home in the slums. The undernourished twins, ill with malaria, lay on the floor, trying to cry but too weak to do anything but cough. “My thoughts were, ‘What can you possibly say to a person in a situation like this that will make things better?’ As I tried to compose a sentence, I started crying,” recalled Owren. Joyce hugged Owren and told her not to worry. “That was a true reality check,” said Owren in an e-mail. “There and then I realized my wanting to ‘save the world’ was lost forever.” Owren’s Lions club at the University of Bergen may not be saving the world, but the 35-member club is helping thousands of youths, deaf people, orphans and others in Uganda. The student Lions are not only purchasing medicine, mosquito nets and school supplies for Ugandans but also spend four to five weeks in Uganda doing hands-on service and getting to know the people they help. The interaction helps bridge the usual gulf between volunteers and those in need. “You realize your task is not to ‘save’ anybody but to treat the people you meet with respect, empathy, solicitude and humanity,” said Owren, who created her club’s student exchange program. Added Øyvind Johnsen, 26, current club president, “As my mother always said, ‘The greatest pleasure is the pleasure of helping others.’ I thought I understood what she said but I didn’t understand it until I joined the Lions club.” Two years ago the new club dispatched a five-person team to Uganda to uncover suitable aid projects for the club. Instead, the club decided to start their student exchange program. At schools for the deaf, club members teach classes, make repairs and serve meals. They also volunteer at orphanages, rehabilitation centers and eye clinics and donate medicines, mosquito nets and school materials to those in need. This year the club has taken its support to yet another level: establishing self-sustaining projects. Sixteen Lions traveled to Uganda in June to initiate Christmas card and art projects in which students and orphans produce cards, drawings and paintings to be Sold or exhibited in Norway. The Lions also are setting up a commercial pig farm to support the efforts of Silent Voices, which teaches sign language to deaf people and their parents and advocates for them. As in many poor nations, those with disabilities in Uganda are often ostracized and receive little government or private support. Assisted by an LCIF grant, the Bergen Student Lions will spend $46,000 and work with Ugandan Lions to build barns, construct corrals, arrange for the services of a veterinarian and otherwise prepare the deaf clients of Silent Voices to raise 60 pigs. From day one of their involvement with Uganda, the Lions, young, enthusiastic and unafraid to face new experiences, have ventured out into the neighborhoods of Kampala, the capital city, to interact directly with Ugandans. Last year they organized the Lions Cup 2008 in Kamwokya, one of the city’s slums. More than 100 youths competed in soccer, volleyball and netball. The Norwegian Lions also worked with children from a school/orphanage, built by the Kaese Lions Club in Uganda, to put on a musical and theatre show as a way to thank their Lions benefactors. “What I really enjoyed was noticing how the children really enjoyed being able to give something back to their caretakers,” said Owren. Owren lived with a host family in Kaese. Together, they “squeezed into a two-room apartment in the back of a store and shared unforgettable moments over huge dishes of local Ugandan food.” Her host family’s lack of money did not affect their hospitality. “As long as there’s warmth and unselfishness, the level of hospitality pays no regard to wealth,” she said. Born in the Netherlands and raised on the southwestern coast of Norway, Owren says her schoolteacher-mother and engineer-father encouraged their three children to “think big” and “pursue our dreams.” When she was 20, she spent three months in Ghana volunteering at an orphanage. “It changed my life,” she said. Studying English and writing her thesis on Ghanian English, she wants to work some day for the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation. She recently became international relations chairperson for her Lions district. Owren admitted she “had to” become a Lion in order to travel to Uganda to help others. Her hesitancy about membership is long gone. “Am I glad I am a Lion? I could not have imagined my life without it,” she said. Added Johnsen, “Before I joined, I had no knowledge of the organization Other than the thought of old men in suits and conservatism. I could not have been more wrong.” One of the projects Lions will launch this summer in Uganda will be a Lions Youth Health Week including a day dedicated to young mothers. The health events will be held at the social services office, supported by Norwegian Lions for many years, where Owren met with Joyce. “I hope Joyce will be attending with two happy, healthy four-yearold twins,” said Owren.
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