“Will you watch my baby while I run out and get a few things?” the young mother asked at the end of a social call with Mrs. Amina Bbaale. Amina looked at the sleeping five-month-old girl and felt more than willing to offer a kindness to the young widow sitting in her parlor who had lost her husband to AIDS only the week before. Amina had come to know the woman and her husband from weekly trips to the market where she frequented their shop.
“I'll be right back,” said the mother to Amina and her sleeping child as she left. But she never returned.
Six months later, one of the woman's relatives arrived at Amina's door. She had come to let her know that the baby's mother had gone to her home village where she, too, had died of AIDS. On her death bed, the woman confided that she had carefully considered her daughter's future when leaving her baby and a small bag of clothes with Amina and Circle of Peace School.
“I know Mrs. Bbaale will love and care for Ivy (pseudonym) and give her a good education,” she had told her caregivers. She also told them that Ivy had AIDS.
AIDS Orphans Thrive at a Ugandan School
That was 10 years ago. And Ivy has been loved, cared for and educated at Circle of Peace School, a small family-run school on the outskirts of Kampala, the capital of Uganda. Thanks to daily antiretroviral drug treatments provided through international assistance, Ivy has survived.
Ivy was the first AIDS orphan to arrive at COPI, but not the last. Of the 40 orphans and abandoned children who currently live at the school, a half dozen live with the disease. Each month they are loaded into the school van and taken some 30 miles to a medical clinic where they receive treatment.
Just as the young widow trusted Amina Bbaale to ensure a good future for her daughter, Circle of Peace School is known for never turning away a child who wants an education and needs help attaining it. This is the principle on which the school was founded in 1994, when Amina's daughter, Joanita, saw a growing need for schooling among the children of her neighborhood.
As a credentialed primary school teacher, Joanita could not abide the practice of barring students from school whose families could not afford to pay for books, uniforms, meals and supplies. With assistance from her family – parents, four sisters and five brothers – Joanita opened a school specifically for those children whose families could not afford the government-run schools.
Over the last 20 years the school has grown from an initial eight nursery school students, to 300 students in nursery classes through grade 7. The school is licensed by the Ugandan Ministry of Education but receives no government support. Families contribute what they can to their children’s education and the remainder of the operating funds come from the Bbaale family (who have converted their family compound into a school campus), from profit-making businesses that the family has set up, and from Circle of Peace International (COPI), a US-based nonprofit founded in 2010 to assist the school.
The family has set up separate boys' and girls' dormitories where the orphans and abandoned children live. The family covers the costs of food, medical care, clothing and entertainment for the children at the school. Most importantly, they provide emotional support and a safe environment to live and to study.
COPI works to find sponsors in the US for each of the dorm residents. Four hundred dollars is all it takes to cover their needs for a year.
Life for Ivy has not been easy. At one point Ivy ended up in the hospital, fighting for her life. But she recovered and now thrives at Circle of Peace School.
“She is a great mentor for children when they first come to live in the dorms,” says Joanita. “She takes them under her wing and helps them understand how things work at the school. She makes friends easily and helps newcomers feel at ease.”
Despite needing to take time out from school occasionally due to fatigue, Ivy is excelling academically. “She does really well on standardized tests that all grade school children must take,” Joanita notes.
Ivy's life expectancy is good thanks to the medicines she takes daily. “She complains about having to take them sometimes because they have negative side effects,” observes Joanita. “But we remind her that she must keep taking the drugs if she wants to live.”
“Because of the need to disburse daily medications we need an infirmary at the School,” notes COPI board member MJ Ebenhack. “Raising the money to build and furnish an infirmary has become a top priority for the coming year.”
According to school officials, it will take $20,000 to erect and furnish an infirmary at the school compound. It will not only be a place to keep sick children separated from other students, but will serve as a locale for health education.
Despite the many obstacles they face, Ivy and the other AIDS orphans residing at Circle of Peace School know they are lucky. According to government statistics 190,000 Ugandan children are infected with AIDS and only 32% of these are getting treatment. Few of them live in a safe and nurturing environment where they can realize their full potential and develop as persons who can confidently face the future.
But Ivy and her classmates can, thanks to Circle of Peace School and the many people around the world who are working to make sure that the School remains a sanctuary for learning.