An American mom helps build a school in Uganda

'Give it up for Gulu' began as a simple fundraiser by a stay-at-home mom but became a long-term passionate project aimed at building a pre-school in Uganda.

Courtesy of Mary Gispert
Mary Gispert stands alongside the foundation of the St. Catherine’s Nursery School in Gulu, Uganda. Gispert founded the nonprofit Give It Up for Gulu to raise funds to build the pre-school.

“We just met at church.”

She didn’t know it at the time, but when Mary Gispert met Father James Okello of the Archdiocese of Gulu, Uganda, during his visit to her home parish in 2012, her life was going to change.

While she had met and spoken with several missionary priests who had visited her parish in the past, something about Father Okello’s message resonated with her.

“The way he presented the story just triggered a soft spot in my heart for the people there,” Ms. Gispert says.

Father Okello shared the story of his parishioners, the people of Gulu, Uganda – who are slowly recovering from a more than 20-year war with the Lord’s Resistance Army. In spite of the overwhelming issues facing his congregation, Father Okello was determined to achieve his goal – the building of a new pre-school for children in Gulu.

The stay-at-home mother soon wound up adopting that as her goal as well.

Give it up for Gulu” began as a simple fundraiser she launched with the Roman Catholic school attached to her home parish, a project during Lent that encouraged students to donate the change they might otherwise spend on snacks or other things to the cause of building a school for their counterparts in Uganda.

The effort raised roughly $2,500, and it got Gispert thinking about doing more for the cause.

“That was just awesome,” she says. “It gave that little kick start. I was just really drawn to figure out ways to do this.”

She continued her efforts with a restaurant fundraiser, in which a portion of the proceeds from each check went to the cause.

And through collaboration with others, a “buy a brick” fundraiser began, through which folks seeking to support the building of the school could make a donation to essentially sponsor one of the bricks that would go into the structure – an effort that raised some $11,000 in donations.

Throughout more than a year of fundraising efforts, Gispert communicated regularly with Father Okello via email, keeping herself apprised of the building process and eventually accepting his invitation to visit the site.

Her two-week trip to Gulu this past May allowed her to witness the initial stages of building what is to be named St. Catherine’s Nursery School – honoring the namesake of Gispert’s home parish in Delaware.

She recalled Father Okello driving down the road when he suddenly turned onto a tract of grass, finally parking near what, at the time, was just the foundation of the school.

“I was sort of like in a cloud,” says Gispert when describing the moments when she first saw the property. “It was a good experience – I instantly felt right at home.”

By the time she left, the building had begun to show signs of progress. And today, the roof is on the schoolhouse and restroom facilities are under construction.

Through the generosity of many people, the effort has raised nearly the needed $35,000 estimated to construct the school – which includes two classrooms with furniture, as well as a pair of offices for teachers.

“It is a very simple school,” she says. “It is nothing like anything here.”

As the construction process winds down, Gispert says, it is easy to envision the school as it will be when it opens its doors to the children, who will range in age from three to seven.

“What I am picturing is this little school in an area that has been hard hit,” she says. “These little children … would be able to go to school and get a start on their education.”

Gispert recalls a powerful moment she shared with Father Okello during his visit, when she volunteered to show him around the area and take him to the University of Delaware, where her daughters attend classes.

“He had never been out of Uganda before, so this was a big trip for him,” she says.

It was when they passed a pet day-care center that Gispert was struck by just how different their worlds were.

“I actually felt embarrassed of what we have; we have so much,” she says. Her community had a care facility for household pets, while his parishioners could barely afford to eat. “That is when I came to the realization of how different our two worlds really were.”

She continues, “I just had this passion that I was going to see that he got this school. I really wanted to see what I could do to help him.”

While the project to build the school is nearing its fund-raising goal, Gispert envisions future efforts that would help construct a playground, and even allow the sponsoring of students, helping to cover their school fees.

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