Life is not easy in the rural Ugandan district where sponsorship officer Tom Ndawula works with children and families. But he feels hopeful, because he is not working alone.
Tom’s head pops in and out of view as he pushes a play structure full of children in yellow school uniforms, lit aglow by the midday sun.
On this June day in Wakiso, Uganda, we are visiting the Kolongero Early Child Development (ECD) Center. A brick one-room schoolhouse with homemade dolls hanging from the window, this preschool fills a critical need in the community — providing a safe space for children to go while their parents work during the day.
“Action started them some time back, but now they are self-sustaining,” Tom says of the ECD centers in Wakiso, an impoverished district of Uganda, where for the past ten years, Holt has served children and families alongside our local partner, Action for Children.
Although the Kolongero preschool has the resources it needs to operate independently, some parents still struggle to pay the monthly fee of 10,000 Ugandan shillings — roughly $3 — that goes toward the teacher’s salary.
But that’s where Tom comes in. As a sponsorship officer, Tom works to ensure that every child has what they need to succeed.
A younger guy, soft-spoken and gentle in his mannerisms, Tom Ndawula grew up in a rural community very much like the small farming villages that make up Wakiso. In many ways, he identifies with the children and families he works with. “My dad died when I was 8,” he says. “I struggled to finish my studies. My mom helped me, but we did not have much income. Life was not easy.”
Tom worked through college, but it was in a different kind of work — work for which he didn’t get paid — that he found his true calling.
“Before university, I was a volunteer helping with sponsorship programs,” he says. As a volunteer with Feed the Children and other organizations, he saw the need facing communities in Uganda — an experience that ultimately guided his choice of study. “I felt social work was best for me because I don’t like to see people suffer,” Tom says, his soft voice struggling against the joyful roar of children playing in the background.
Now, Tom is tasked with ensuring that every child supported by Holt sponsors in Uganda is on track to reach their potential. He works directly with the families in our family strengthening program — helping them grow their income so they can independently meet all of their children’s needs, including their school fees.
In Wakiso, the need for sponsorship is particularly critical, he says.
“This community was very affected by the war,” he says, referring to a violent anti-government uprising that broke out in Wakiso in the early 1980s. “Some families were left with zero.”
Many people fled their homes, and many children lost their parents to the conflict that also devastated their villages — destroying schools, homes, farms and businesses. When the HIV/AIDS epidemic hit the region around the same time as the conflict ended in 1986, even more children lost their parents. The impact of both tragedies continues to be felt to this day, as many children are growing up in the care of elderly grandparents and many families are still struggling to rebuild their lives.
As they work to rebuild, however, many of these families have a tremendous source of support in their Holt sponsors.
“We identify families when they are at the rescue stage,” Tom says of the families Holt serves in Wakiso. “That’s the stage where families are not able to meet their basic needs, like food, clothing, education.” While monthly sponsorship meets these basic needs, families work to gain skills, grow gardens and build a more stable income. After about a year, most families graduate to the next stage — the stability stage. When the family reaches the “permanency stage” — a stage at which they can sustain themselves independently — their sponsors begin supporting a different child and family.
“We identify families when they are at the rescue stage. That’s the stage where families are not able to meet their basic needs, like food, clothing, education.”Tom Ndawula, Holt sponsorship officer
“All of this is done by Holt sponsors,” Tom says. “They are supporting it.”
As their advocate in the field, Tom is also a great source of support for the families and children in sponsorship. On the same afternoon that we visit children at the preschool in Wakiso, we also meet up with the Kolongero Action Support Group — a group of ten families who regularly meet to give advice and support to each other. “It is a social work method that when you find people with the same problems,” Tom explains, “you put them together so that they can share experiences and improve their ways of living.”
When we arrive, the Kolongero group is sitting in a circle — making baskets and mats from materials that they mutually invested in to help grow their income. The sky has darkened and the winds have kicked up since earlier in the day, but the families have waited patiently for our arrival. They have a lot to share.
“We are grateful to the sponsors who have been supporting us for quite some time — especially our children at the ECD center,” says Laurence, a tall, slender gentleman who seems to be a spokesperson for the group. “We are working very hard and we are working together.”
“We are also grateful to Tom, Elizabeth and Jack,” Laurence continues, listing the field staff that works with their families. “They have done a wonderful job because the situation in the community was not good at all. But now, we can walk with our heads high.”
At the moment, Tom says that most of the families Holt serves in Wakiso are at the stability stage. But they have made enormous progress from when Tom began working with them, and sponsors began supporting them.
“Thank you for what you do, especially for these vulnerable children. You mean a lot to them.”
“Thank you for what you do, especially for these vulnerable children. You mean a lot to them,” he says, speaking directly into the camera to deliver a message to sponsors. “We still need your support so these families can reach that level where they are able to sustain themselves. But I know with your support and prayers, everything will be okay.”