1.) Tell us about the history of your organization?In 2011, a young Ugandan man who had started an organization to support his rural community, was in the computer center in Gulu town, learning to use computers, and hoping to find a way to get a website for his organization. He saw a young man s teaching computers in the center, and felt God telling him to ask that young man for help. That young man was my son Joey, who was doing a college internship at the computer center. They became friends, and Joey made a website for the organization. A few months later, after Joey returned home, he got an email from his Ugandan friend saying that he wanted to start an income-generating project for women in his community who were learning to make paper beads. He asked if Joey knew anyone who could help him market the beads. At that time, I was manager of a fair trade store, so Joey contacted me, and I agreed to help. I became very involved with the bead group and the rest of the organization, and visit them yearly. Early on, I realized that while the bead business would help some of the more capable women of the community, there were many other families of orphaned children, headed by old grandmothers trying to earn school fees. Since I belong to a very generous church I suggested we start a sponsorship program for these families in tandem with the bead business. This grew very quickly; we currently have 67 children in the program, which has outgrown our small church. Sponsorship fees of $20 a month pay for a basic education in rural schools for the children. But we wanted to actually improve the children's education, and get them into better schools (it's typical for rural schools to have 100 children in a class, and for teachers to miss weeks at a time, with no substitute). Initially we called the business Jewels for Schools, and pledged to use as much of the sales to provide the children a better education at Bethel Christian School, which costs quite a bit more than rural schools. We re-branded this year as Omiyo, which means "Give" in Luo, the tribal language of our Ugandan artisans. Jewels for Schools is now a program of Omiyo.
2.) What are some of the trials and triumphs you have faced in bringing your organization to where it is today?Not living in Uganda is hard as I don't have much control over product development and shipping is expensive. I often get a whole shipment of styles that I know I can't sell, it's very difficult! The women I work with are extremely poor subsistence farmers, and there is no way for them to know what is in style in the US. The last time I went, I took a lot of samples for them to follow, but it's hard for them to understand that I want things exactly like this. No substituting green sparkly beads for brass beads, for example. To be fair, it's hard for a group in the small northern town of Gulu to get supplies. Most bead groups have moved to the capital for that reason, because shipping is easier from the capital, and because it's easier to just fly to Kampala, and not have to take the grueling eight-hour bus ride to Gulu. But I am committed to working with women and children in Gulu.
The main reason Omiyo exists is not for me to have a booming business, but to help create jobs in this area where unemployment is about 70%. So despite the hardships, I will continue to work in Gulu and the rural communities that surround it.Also, in 2014 temptation became too much for my Ugandan partner, and he misused donated funds we had been collecting for a school project. In addition, his wife was the head of the group, and she had quit working with any of the other women, in order to get all the income for herself and her mother. I had to quit working with both of them. I was discouraged and thought of giving up the bead business. But there was no way I could abandon the 67 sponsored children. It was a hard year, trying to replace all my former systems with new ones, while struggling with feelings of discouragement. I also have struggled with how to relate to my former partners. They were like family to me, and it is hard to see them and their child suffering with no employment again, as well as rejection from their community, who are angry with them for messing up a good arrangement that really benefited the community. During my last visit, we had a reconciliation mediated by a local pastor, as well as a meeting with some local leaders to work out practical details and let the community know that I have forgiven them.