From sponsored child to inspirational champion for children with disabilities. 29-year-old SIMON EROKU talks about his own sponsorship journey, and the springboard Global Care gave him to offering hope and a future to some of the most vulnerable children in Uganda.
“I grew up with my mom, dad and five siblings in Entebbe in central Uganda. I was born hearing but became Deaf when I was nine years old. I attended primary school free of charge through a government programme but in 2002, I had to go hundreds of miles away from my home to attend the only secondary school offering Deaf students a good education at that time.
“My education came with a lot of costs and after two years, I had to drop out for a year while my dad got enough money together for me to continue. He had to sell his only cows to pay my school fees, which were more than those for all my siblings combined.
“When I completed my O level education I decided that was enough school, but when my results came back, I had excelled beyond expectations and was one of the best students in the district.
“That’s when I started to think about continuing my education and I was lucky enough to meet and receive help from Mama Anne Emuron, who was the manager of Global Care’s Soroti Centre at the time. At first she paid my school fees herself, as I wasn’t eligible for sponsorship because of my age.
“Later she was able to find me a sponsor who offered to support me through my studies until I joined university. I was 19 at the time, so it was unusual for me to receive sponsorship, but I believe it was through God’s intervention that I was able to get the support I so desperately needed.
“Being the first Deaf child to access sponsorship through Global Care Soroti, I was truly inspired by this. I had never before experienced the thrill of being loved and supported to reach my full potential. I truly believe that my destiny was defined and shaped out of the love and support I got from Global Care at that time.
“It was at the Soroti Centre that I started my very first volunteer role during the holidays, supporting the Soroti District Deaf Association to fundraise for its members. I think it was seeing what I was able to do that made the staff and volunteers at the Centre realise that there was ABILITY in my disability. It motivated them to think about other children and young people like myself who had been excluded, faced discrimination and had no chance of creating a future for themselves.”
After Simon finished high school, he carried on volunteering at the Centre, helping with the initial research into the idea of developing a dedicated centre for children with disabilities. Today, the Ark is a thriving day centre, catering for children with physical disabilities of varying degrees of severity and some also with learning disabilities. The children receive healthy meals, training in basic life skills and light physical therapy, whereas previously most of them led extremely isolated lives, often locked away for hours each day.
Simon adds: “The Ark is one of a kind and I really love the passion and commitment of all the staff and volunteers. Seeing the children’s smiling faces makes me feel happy that my own dreams and destiny began at the beautiful place that is now The Ark.”
Simon has continued to work on initiatives impacting the lives of the thousands of children and young people in Uganda with disabilities.
“I have supported UNICEF Uganda as an ambassador for Children and Young People with Disabilities. I spoke at the first ever UNICEFActivate talks in Kampala in 2014, when I had the honour of talking about my dream to see children and young people with disabilities accepted, empowered and given the chance to have and live their dreams, like any other children.
“From 2013 to 2015, I worked with the national Youth With Disabilities Committee as its chairperson and had the opportunity to travel in Europe and Africa fundraising and supporting various initiatives empowering young people with disabilities.
“During my university studies, I took on a course in film and documentary production and me and my team worked on a series of inspirational documentaries to help people understand that people with disabilities can do a great deal more than society thinks.
“I believe that through technology, we can break down many barriers and inspire inclusion. I am currently implementing a TechInnovation project where we are making it possible for people to learn Ugandan sign language via digital platforms such as mobile phones, tablets, computers and even at home via their TVs and through the internet. We recently launched a Ugandan Sign Language Mobile App and I spoke about this at the Mobiles in Education Symposium in Washington DC in October 2017, as well as the International Conference on ICT for Education, Learning and Development in Mauritius.
“I am also working hard on kickstarting ‘digital classrooms’ for Deaf children in Uganda and I am currently forming a partnership so that we can pilot the project in two schools. By ‘digital classrooms’ I mean animated classrooms where Deaf children can learn with the aid of a computer-based teacher who uses sign language, pictures and illustrations to present learning content. I believe Deaf children could learn better if a uniform and more visual means of presentation was used in class. Teachers – who may well have very little knowledge of sign language themselves – could then concentrate on guiding Deaf children’s understanding of what they were learning through the digital teacher.
“The two schools involved are very positive about the project and I am putting a lot of energy into raising money to fully fund the pilot project and enable us to measure the impact of digital classrooms on the ability of Deaf children to excel in school.
“I was one of the lucky ones. Thanks to Global Care I was able to finish my education and draw inspiration from the charity’s work in Uganda. My dream is for future generations of Deaf children to experience the best in school and not to face the barriers and challenges I did. If only we can provide Deaf children with access to good quality education in Uganda, I believe they will be able to reach their full potential and become powerful and productive members of their communities.
“Perhaps people don’t always realise just how much of a difference their pound can make to turn round the life of a vulnerable child. Global Care’s support has helped not only me, but also hundreds of other Deaf children who hopefully will soon be learning in digital classrooms. Above all, I am able to smile today because I know that children with disabilities like myself in Soroti and beyond now have hope.”