Kristen Usher - 2014 Program Participant

Ugandan children preparing for a group prayer

Friday Prayer

Why did you decide to apply for a volunteer abroad program?

I decided to apply for an international program after a few volunteer abroad experiences with work. I was selected to be part of an international leadership group with my former employer. During my time with that non-profit, I volunteered locally and abroad on short service trips. That experience prepared me for my time in Uganda. As soon as I was on a service trip abroad, I knew that I wanted to further my experience.

I did my research and looked into many different options to volunteer abroad, and The Real Uganda was accessible, affordable, trustworthy, and incredibly interesting to me as a grassroots organization.

What attracted you to The Real Uganda? 

I did my research. I'm very curious and always have a lot of questions. The Real Uganda was very quick to respond and welcomed all of my questions. I originally found The Real Uganda through the Global Volunteer Network, which is a highly regarded volunteer group, trusted, and with great reviews. I knew any organization associated with them would be reputable, and it far surpassed my expectations!

How did you decide on your placement?

I chose my particular program because I wanted to challenge myself. There are a variety of options to choose from at The Real Uganda. I have a background in education and child care, so I immediately gravitated toward the teaching and orphanage work. I fell in love with the story of Grace Orphanage, how the project combined education with life, culture, and relationship building. This particular assignment includes rural community work, and I knew that would be a challenge, I was looking to really experience Uganda as much as possible in a short time.

Volunteer with children at Grace Orphanage in Uganda

All of the kids and Madame Liz at Grace Orphanage

What was your favorite part about Uganda? 

My favorite part was the connection to the real community and the people. Nothing compares to the relationships I built on this trip. I felt, and still feel, connected to each and every person I met while in Uganda. The location was nestled among banana trees and sugar cane fields. I was able to wake up with the sun to the sound of children's laughter and the rooster.

Have you ever bathed in an open air shower with only leaves and the gorgeous clear blue sky above? Well, at Grace there is a deep connection to the world and community around. I was able to visit with families of the children and staff at the orphanage, as well as experience a church service and traditional burial. The location gave me an experience that is hard to match. I was able to feel at home, but so far away in all the best ways.

What made volunteering with The Real Uganda unique? 

The Real Uganda is incredibly unique because you get a sense of family and you feel like part of the community, while still feeling a sense of security in that they have a lot of experience with past volunteers. In this program, you are removed from city life and have a chance to connect with the community you are in. The staff at Grace Centre, especially Liz, are incredibly helpful and loving. Leslie from The Real Uganda makes sure you are taken care of prior to heading out. You feel ready to take on the experience as much as possible. The program is completely unique from other volunteer experiences I've had. You don't feel like an outsider looking in, but a part of a beautiful movement.

How did local staff support you throughout your program? 

Local staff are the HEART of The Real Uganda and their programs. Local staff picked me up from the airport and gave me a welcome tour and a lot of pertinent info as we traveled to the guest house. It was great to have a smiling face to welcome me once arrived! Local staff are at the guest house taking care of volunteers, preparing them for their projects, and getting to know them personally.

Once at the program location, you are in the hands of the local staff at sites. It is a beautiful thing to travel in to town on a botabota beside Madame Liz and shop at the local markets. The collaborating staff really enjoy showcasing Uganda and want you to enjoy every moment. Liz made sure I ate well, stayed comfortable, met everyone I should, and experienced everything I possibly could.

Leslie from The Real Uganda is incredible. She takes care of helping you adapt and get comfortable to being in Uganda. She knows and loves everything about the country; it's refreshing and inspiring to meet such a woman.

What do you wish you could change about your experience?

Stayed longer. Simple as that.

A river in rural Uganda

Exploring Uganda

What was a typical day like for you as a volunteer in Uganda?

A day at Grace Orphanage begins early. Waking up to the sights, smells, and sounds is refreshing every time. I participated in the teaching almost every day; the school day starts around 7:30 a.m. My days included time in the classroom, working with the teachers, teaching/singing/playing games with the children, helping with chores, assisting in cooking meals, working in the garden with the kids, and I'm sure I am forgetting something! Besides these experiences, I was able to meet families in the community and experience daily life at church and markets.

What did you enjoy doing on your free time? 

I really enjoyed spending time in the garden with the kids during the day. But the best time for me was after chores, but before meals in the vending. I spent time sitting with the children from the orphanage, singing, playing soccer, learning new games, and talking about our families. They had a lot of questions and I loved trying to answer them. I enjoyed getting to know each individual child at that time, since they were not in class and able to talk to me more personally. I will always remember those evenings outside, helping to prepare our meals, and talking the night away.

What was your accommodation like in Uganda?

While in Uganda I stayed at both The Real Uganda guest house and the volunteer room at Grace Orphanage Centre. Both accommodations were welcoming and had everything a volunteer could need. The guest house was in Mukono, so it had running water and electricity, where Grace Orphanage does not. Leslie helps prepare you for that, answering any questions and letting you know how it will be once at Grace. Honestly, it doesn't take you long to acclimate because that's just how it is! Once at Grace, you want to be fully immersed and living at Grace is an incredible experience.

Volunteer with kids in Uganda

Down time with my kids

What was your favorite part about your accommodation?

My favorite part was the beauty that you can find in the smallest of things, the homemade breakfast at the guest house, getting to know people around you, or looking out over the rolls hills outside Mukono. At Grace, it is honestly hard to pick what was best about it.

Now that you're home, how has volunteering abroad impacted your life? 

Now that I am home, it is hard to put into words how this program abroad has impacted my life. I wrote daily, multiple times a day actually, while abroad. I put that journal writing to use as a blog that is still a work in progress. That has helped me reflect even more on my experience. I believe in myself more, and others do too. I am an advocate in every way for the Real Uganda and its’ program at Grace. I have stayed in constant contact with staff from both.

Now that I am home, I applied and was accepted to a graduate certificate program in international development. This experience gave me the courage and solidified my passion for international work. My experience with The Real Uganda will continue to impact me for the rest of my life.