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Helping Mwana

Crossroads United Methodist Church has forged a longtime commitment to improving education in a town in Uganda.

Six years ago, Steve Hughes was in Uganda with his church's first-ever international mission to help construct a Methodist church in the town of Mukono.

Chickens roamed around the construction site. Hughes assumed a nearby small hut was the nighttime boarding space for the animals. When the door opened, however, he saw a bench, a gaggle of children and a woman by a chalkboard.

It was the town's school.

"All she had was chalk," Hughes remembered.

That moment was the genesis for Crossroads United Methodist Church's ongoing mission to improve education for children in Mukono. They reached a significant milestone in February 2004, when the completed HUMBLE United Methodist School opened with 116 students.

Building the school was a process that would take years — but took hold in Hughes' mind the moment he sat down with the local church's choir director, Robert Sajjabi. The two spoke and prayed and planned.

On the airplane, speeding back across the Atlantic, Hughes sketched out plans for the school on a cocktail napkin.

IN THE FOLLOWING months, Hughes and the church began pulling together ideas for making the plan to build a school work.

Sajjabi had become their liaison in Uganda. He and Hughes kept in touch, but the school still felt like a far-off dream.

Children from Crossroads in Ashburn and the new Methodist church in Mukono chose pen pals — and without prompting, Sajjabi's daughter chose Hughes' daughter.

"It was God's hand," Sajjabi said. "That showed us God had chosen us to work on this project."

Then, in December 1999, Sajjabi's textile-selling business burned down. With no income, he began selling everything he owned, including his children's things, to pay off loans.

Just when he was considering fleeing the country, Sajjabi received a letter from Hughes telling him that Crossroads was going ahead with the project and wanted Sajjabi as the director.

"It was God's grace," he said. "From that time, my life was changed. Not only my life, my people down there, their lives are changed."

UGANDA has been a country engaged in a battle for its own soul since achieving independence from the United Kingdom in 1962. Since then, it had weathered brutal dictators and genocide and become one of the most AIDS-plagued countries in the world.

According to the CIA's World Factbook, 530,000 Ugandans were living with AIDS in 2003.

Only half the population has easy access to clean water.

In the last 10 years, however, the Ugandan economy has slowly grown in strength.

But the Ugandan education system still struggles. Half the country's population is under the age of 14, and many are uneducated, illiterate or unaware of the dangers of AIDS.

Ugandan public school classes can have 60 or more students per teacher.

"The ratio [at HUMBLE] is a small class, not over 25 in a class," said Cathy Norman, one of Crossroads' team leaders for the Ugandan project.

Now in its second year, HUMBLE United Methodist School has 31 staff members for 163 grade-school-aged students. Among the students is Sajjabi's daughter Alice Miracle, who has joined him in America this summer.

Having a school where proper diet and farming techniques are taught alongside reading and writing skills makes a world of difference for the children, some of whom are orphaned, Sajjabi said.

"They feel there is hope, somebody cares," he said. "They needed to have hope."

Congregants at Crossroads can participate in a number of ways: by visiting on its annual mission trip or by sponsoring a student or a fellow visiting congregate.

SAJJABI'S ambitions for the school are just taking shape. His mission in America this summer is to spread the word of HUMBLE's success and the Ashburn church that made it happen — HUMBLE stands for Helping Ugandan Mwana [child] By Loving Example.

With two Ugandan students in tow, Sajjabi has traveled to Georgia and will visit churches in Virginia, Pennsylvania and Indiana.

Building the original school cost $1 million, much of which came from Crossroads. Sajjabi envisions expanding the school, building dormitories for its many borders — who now sleep in converted classrooms, showers, a kitchen, a new building for staff and a clinic, plus self-sustaining fish and vegetable farms that would feed the students and turn a profit for the school.

Sajjabi, who didn't own shoes until he was a teenager, knows the school can turn around the lives of many of Ugandan's children.

"Now in school, they are given shoes," he said. "Now they feel they are somebody."

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To learn more about HUMBLE United Methodist School, visit www.thehumbleway.org or contact Uganda@ecrossroadsumc.org.