Sunday, December 2, 2012

Invisible Children, A Stalker, and a School in Uganda

I first learned about Invisible Children about a year ago when a friend and great Project Esperanza volunteer wrote to me about them. She expressed frustration at the fad that the Kony 2012 movement had become and shared critiques she had heard about the organization. The heads of the organization paid or perhaps still pay themselves very large salaries, an arguably small amount of the money fundraised actually goes to develop Uganda, there was discussion over whether or not the man they led people to join together to bring down was even alive, etc.

I looked up the website to inform myself a bit. I could only find an orange background site that said "Kony 2012" and asked you to sign a pledge. The next day I did the same search and with the same web address, found a site extremely different from the orange one. This site had a black background and many, many informative links with great pictures and videos. I enjoyed looking through it comparing and contrasting what I saw to the work that we do here, although realizing that little can really be known from a website. It takes being on the ground and being a part of an organization to really learn about what goes on daily and the impact that is made. I watched the video and was of course heartbroken over the abuse of the children who were victims of this man Joseph Kony and his group.

What was ironic was that someone then posted a Kony 2012 link on my facebook page and another friend wrote to me asking if I knew of the organization, asking my thoughts, and suggesting that I write a blog post about it. Something I knew nothing of before was now all over my radar. My friend then sent me a link to critiques of Invisible Children. One blog post was very insightful and linked to a photo of the three founders (I believe) of the organization holding guns alongside the Ugandan military. I looked up the website again and was amazed to find that the background was now again orange and it featured that same picture. The main point of the website now seemed to be to defend the organization against critiques. Obviously they had a lot going on and obviously they had a staff on the ball who could do some website work quickly and frequently.

Now, I couldn't help but to compare Project Esperanza to this organization a bit. For starters, we have no paid American staff. We have a few positions here in the Dominican where American volunteers can earn small stipends to help them to be able to stay and serve longer, and we just began doing this. Both these positions create income from within the community, (or will at least when they are fully executed and followed through with), which is how we are able to pay these stipends. But in general, we have always focused on paying local teachers and staff.. people who don't have job opportunities otherwise, and working with volunteers from the developed world, as opposed to paid staff from the developed world. We from the developed world can usually take care of our basic needs in many ways and have many opportunities to create income, so it had never seemed right to pay staff to those of us from this background, but seemed right for us to do the work voluntarily, as much as we can, while still providing for ourselves in other ways. Through the life of Project Esperanza, I have found the suggestion of paying American or developed world staff salaries a bit frustrating and insulting because I feel like it is... well taking away from the work on the ground. Money earned to pay oneself is taken away from money to pay others, correct? Well, honestly, after seeing Invisible Children who tours colleges and makes hundreds of times more money than we do each year, I have definitely questioned the choice to not pay American it could improve things for everyone... and we may have to change that in the future. At the same time, I don't regret having done it this way, because in no other way would I personally have been able to live in true solidarity with those we serve and truly understand them in order to truly serve them, and neither would others who have followed this lead, even if for shorter time periods, been able to do the same. That is priceless. And I do believe that our organization is truly relationship based and the relationships that we have with locals are truly focused on the work and not on money. Money is a side factor and not a focus. And I believe that this is where true change can occur.

I won't go on forever about this. The other main thing that the video and the investigation of Invisible Children provoked in me were thoughts and memories of boys from the streets we have served here who gave accounts of being children soldiers for the police in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. I had the most insight into the one boy who spent the most time in our group home. While he showed flashes of brilliance, he was indeed, messed up. He had gone through so much abuse and had such problematic behavior that I found him very hard to deal with. If he had been adopted by a very patient couple, then that would've been ideal, but that was not in his cards. He left the home after spending a few years in it, when he took part in a large theft toward someone who had loved and cared for him much, never returning to apologize. He is, of course, older now, he still lives in the city and actually consistently lives in an apartment, rather than in the streets. He does not get into trouble but plays computer games as much as possible. He ignores me whenever he sees me and I try to do the same to him. :) But in conclusion, he doesn't seem to be so messed up anymore. And that, to me, is a success. I do believe he is learning some things and we'll see if he maintains a job as an adult, but I have not heard of any trouble from him.

When he was little and throwing lots of tantrums and doing unspeakable things, it was very clear that he had been through a lot. One could suspect that without hearing his history. I remember one day in 2007 when something happened...and I don't know if I ever learned what exactly had happened, but I remember that the group of boys participating were all having fun and taking things lightly, and then this boy flipped out. He became completely outraged, out of control, and ran into a room to grab something. He looked like he was about to be destructive to himself, others, and the house, and my intution told me to shut him in the room that he had run into, as I happened to be nearby. I slipped in and sat in front of the door so that he could not leave. He was yelling at me to move and began attacking me. My intuition told me to let him beat me up but don't let him go out the door. I remember thinking that he could possibly break my neck as he pulled on my head and beat me with shoes, but I held my ground. After several minutes of this, he gave up and calmed down. I remember telling him something like, "You see? You don't have to hold that in. You can get it out of your system everyday." Then that was over.

A few days later I remember being overwhelmed with a situation..I don't remember exactly what it was but I'm sure it had to do with the fact that we were running a home with about fifty street kids coming each day, 18 living there, staff who weren't trained for this, I was not officially trained for it, nor was the other founder, and a we had a group of volunteers who had unclear roles, some whom were helping out enjoying doing so and others who were getting frustrated. Neighbors were surprised by the effort we were taking to serve this population of street kids but were not appreciative of their presence in their neighborhood, we were getting threats to be kicked out or Immigration Control sent to send these kids back to Haiti where they were from, etc. It was overwhelming and yes, we were a bit crazy to have ever gotten into it. But this, as well, I do not regret for a second. Feeling completely overwhelmed, I went and sat somewhere and cried. This boy who had beat me up a few days earlier came to me with a little pocket bible, threw it on my lap, and said, "You can get that out of you system everyday." That was one of his flashes of brilliance.

If you would like to help us maintain and improve this program we have for boys on the streets who have come from Haiti to the Dominican Republic under varying circumstances but always "in search of life", then you can do so by purchasing one of these t-shirts. Explanation of the word "grapiyay" can be found on the online store where we sell the shirts. This will help us fundraise and help spread the word as people who see you in the short will undoubtedly say, "What does `grapiyay´mean?"


Now, Uganda. I have never been there, nor have I been anywhere in Africa. I have actually only been to the US where I am from, to Mexico on a family vacation almost 10 yers ago, and here, the Dominican Republic, as well as across the border to Haiti. I felt very comfortable here on this island when I first came and I also felt as though a work started should be a work finished... or at least advanced as far as possible. So I ended up staying here. However, Uganda came to my attention a bit in 2009 when I was contacted by a young lady from Montreal who said that she was coming to the area (Puerto Plata, DR, not Uganda) on family vacation. There were many Haitians where she lived and she felt for them. She had looked through Project Esperanza's website and would love to visit a Haitian school on her visit. I told her that she could visit and later on by phone, we ended up setting a time and place to meet. Through e-mail prior to her trip, she also mentioned that she was involved with a school in Uganda and sent me the website. I was interested, having not traveled to the country or the continent myself but feeling for the people after learning the bit that I did learn. I had many questions about the school, the lives of the people, and she answered some. As I waited for her to show up at the time and place we had decided upon, she called and told me that she couldn't make it.

We stayed in touch some through e-mail and she let me know that she was returning in the beginning of 2010. She still hoped to visit the schools and would contact me. (This was early on in the life of the orgnaization but at this point I don't know that I would just agree to taking someone to visit the schools if that person was not a sponsor or not seriously looking to become one.) She never did contact me but wound up scoping out both neighborhoods where the schools are, and are clearly marked on our website. She also told me that she was in the process of registering a non-profit to run a sponsorship program in Uganda and she wanted to run the same program in one of our schools. So I inquired more about how her efforts worked in Uganda. She didn't answer much, but seemed to want the freedom to go in, take pictures of kids, and ask for funds, having not served at all with our organization and having no real established organization of her own, it seemed. This rubbed me the wrong way but I didn't want to jump to false conclusions prematurely and gave her the benefit of the doubt.

Additionally, she let me know later that she befriended some boys in Padre Granero and was going to help get them into school. I later found out who these boys were when someone else who was in contact with her visited. Both of these boys had been involved in our program for street kids and both were, at the time, students in our grassroots school in the community of Padre Granero. After finding out which boys she was referring to, I wrote to her to let her know that these boys were in our school since she had brought it up and asked if we had a school there. But from that point on, boy did the competition and  deception begin.

As I continued to have e-mail conversation with this girl, I found her to be a pathological liar and to be extremely sneaky and manipulative. She really planned out her e-mails in ways that attacked me and elicited a response, only to then play the victim, as though I were mean and out of line. I think the whole thing was really a training session in politics, leadership, keeping your cool, and not biting at bait mean to draw you into something. I will admit, however, when I would see an e-mail from her, my stomach would jump into my throat, scared of what subtle attacks and strategic lies or half truths I would find and the unsettled feeling I would feel after reading it.

She now mentioned several times her Haitian boyfriend in Montreal and his mother and sisters who were mambos, which are voodoo priestesses more or less. You can read more about this topic in this post. After several mentions of this, I said something along the lines of, "You aren't involved in voodoo, are you?"

She said, "Not really. I just go to feasts and things with my boyfriend." I wrote back telling her that I had learned that voodoo was no joke and someone shouldn't play around with it. I gave her some horrific examples. That ended our e-mail conversation.

She then returned to Puerto Plata that summer, 2010. She and her friend rented a place and right away had young Haitian boys stay there with them. I didn't hear much about them at first, but after a bit, people started reporting disturbing things - not that I asked but they obviously found her out of the ordinary compared to other young foreigners they had met, such as our volunteers. The conversation would always start by someone asking me if I knew her, then they began reporting things. I was told that she bought alcohol for this group of boys on a regular basis. I realize to some readers, one might think that that is often done in the US or other similar countries, but I was absolutely appalled. She tried to pretend as though she came to help people but was getting drunk with 15 and 16 year olds who had little to no security in their shelter, food, employment, family, or much, really. I was told of a 7-year-old boy who lives with his family and has been involved in our school that spent the night at her place as well and later saw pictures on facebook of her and her friend cuddling with him, etc. This was extremely strange. I was highly offended as everything I do through Project Esperanza works to empower people, to give them opportunity, and to encourage a healthy lifestyle. There are others who seek out the most vulnerable people to toy with them and do things that they aren't allowed to do back in their country.

I was also told that she had voodoo music on her phone that she would make others listen to. She told them of things such as her engaging in a practice where a demon apparently enters into one's mind, leading the person to dance. She also told of her ability to approach people in a crowded place, such as a disco, and steal the person's money without the person knowing. This is all voodoo behavior (although the stealing could be common pick pocketing but people do talk about a power one can obtain to become invisible and steal, or pull money, etc.) and again, I wrote about it in this blog post.

One young man became her boyfriend. She used him as her tool to stalk me and to meddle in my family life and into everything involved with Project Esperanza. Even when she was not in the country, a friend observed that she often posted posts on her facebook wall that were unspecifically yet always coincidentally in line with events in my life. When she mentioned several of these comments to me after realizing that there seemed to be more than a coincidence in the way that they coincided with my life, I was very disturbed. Had we both been in a developed country, I would've gotten a restraining order in a minute, but was used to the absence of the law on many things here in the Dominican Republic. I did, however, talk to the police about it and they said that if she threatens me, then they could set up a restraining order.

I tried to ignore her but time and time again, she came up. She sought out boys in Project Esperanza's group home and unsuccessfully tried to draw them to herself in some way. One boy they offered to take on a road trip to another part of the country. She obviously had no respect for the program they are a part of, the rules involved, and the transformational role that the program has played in their lives. It seemed as though she did everything with this complete lack of respect and with a thief mindset.

Through all of this, I always felt bad for the actual person in Uganda who was on the ground, running the school that shew as helping. I concluded that her fundraising for this school gave her an unbalanced sense of entitlement and authority. When she spoke about the school in Uganda, she spoke as though she were fully in charge, despite the fact that she was never present.

At one point in 2011, I contacted the Canadian consulate in the area because her boyfriend sent me a message, telling me to leave her and her friend alone and that I had been looking for trouble with her, attacking her, etc. When I talked to him about this, telling him it was just the opposite, he repeatedly said that he would always protect her and her friend. I realized that he was extremely deceived and influenced by her, and felt that with a situation such as this, he could be convinced to do something violent if she asked him to.

During the summer of 2011, she continued with the attacks, so I visited her apartment and just told her that I wasn't interested in playinhg any games and if she did anything else, I would go to the police and get a court date set. She dramatically ran into her apartment acting like a victim and her boyfriend dramatically protected her as she ran in. A few months later, she was not in the area and she did something else via the internet. About an hour beforehand, I had opened an e-mail that I had received months before. It was from someone else that was involved with the same school in Uganda. It had links to videos, one which the school's founder and director was in. Under this video was a link to the blog that she used to raise support for the school. After quickly checking out the blog, I noticed the followers were visible along the bottom. I thought, if she does anything else then I could contact these people with a summary of what this girl has been doing for the past few years, hoping that the right people would receive it. So when she did her latest attack about an hour later, I decided that this is what I should do. When I had time within the next few days, I would write an honest e-mail explaning my experiences with her, and ask that it be forwarded to the founder and director of the school in Uganda that she claimed as her own. I did not want to harm the school's funding, but I strongly felt that this woman in Uganda should know what she had been doing. Others and I kept pondering as well... how does she get this money to come down here, rent houses, supply alcohol for many, rent vehicles, etc? She was a college student.

How ironic it was that the next time I checked the blog to begin contacting its followers, they had been removed! Then my firend who once sponsored a student at the school in Uganda let me know that she had received an e-mail stating that the sponsorship program was ending. This same information was also posted on the blog. What timing! So I searched around for some contacts, got some leads, and sent my e-mail. People replied, letting me know that she had raised large sums of money (thousands of dollars) to apparently purchase a plot of land for the school in Uganda, but that never happened. She blamed this on the school's director, claiming that she had sent it, but the time that this several thousand dollars went missing aparently coincided with her first summer in the Dominican Republic where she rented a place, etc. I was also forwarded more recent e-mails where there was discussion over more recently missing funds, which she claimed were frozen in a PayPal account. However, this again coincided with her 2011 summer in Puerto Plata. It was at this point that she was being questioned about the missing funds that she abandoned the school altogether. She blamed the frozen account on the fact that her efforts and the school were not a registered non-profit, and belittled and condescended the school's director for that, while many involved reported that she had claimed that the non-profit status was achieved long ago.  She had told me years before when she wanted to run a sponsorship program in one of our grassroots schools that her organization was in the processing of registering as a non-profit.

Now I felt much better having seen the other side of things, having shared my truth with people involved in Uganda, and then them having shared their truth with me. And it all did add up. I soon saw that, although the fundraiser was a crook, the true leader and the school were beautiful, worthy of support, and had been through a whole lot. The team of supporters had been scattered and tired of being taken advantage of, but many seemed to still love the school and to have the will to support, should it get reorganized. One woman had even started a separate blog and sponsorship program as many sponsors had lost trust in the person I have been writing about. However, this had not really taken off but was a bit stagnant. So after staying in contact with the folks I talked to and realizing that the school truly was abandoned, I worked with others to add the school as a Grassroots Schools Global Affiliate, which is a site I created, with help, after being contacted by so many aspiring schools to try to give them a chance at finding a team of sponsors and to remain in communication and transparency with their sponsors. The site and program also serves sponsors who wish to support such schools but often find this too foreign of a task when they cannot be on the ground to oversee things. So now this school in Kampala, Uganda, the Christian Upliftment School, run by Hellen Owani, is beginning to receive funds again!

Here in the Dominican Republic, the woman who has been stalking me has rented a building and has opened a school. Her building is just a long rock's throw from the building that we have used for our school in Padre Granero since January 2010, although we just changed to a new spot that may be two or three rock throws away if thrown by the average arm. This school has been functioning since September 2006 and there were no such schools in the area previously. The man that she has working as her director went around visiting houses of children who have been in our school for years, ranting about the super school that will be opening soon. On the sites used to fundraise for this school, there are pictures of several children who go to our school. She writes by their pictures things like, "Help take this little girl off the streets and put her into school." Oh Lord, when will these ridiculous games end? She also apparently offered one of our teachers 3x what we pay him to work at her school which, I'm sure, she is not able to hold up and he ended up sticking with us, but she, of course, found success in messing with his mind for awhile there.

Why does helping people have to be so dramatic? If someone seeking to help people in the area does not wish to support and partner with an already functioning group that is serving an area, then why not simply move to a different underserved area? Why create division and competition among a community living in extreme poverty? Haven't these people been through enough? Do they really need the added drama of people who are supposed to be helping them creating division among them? What they need are people who can work together selflessly to lead them. I have never had a problem working together with others and quite enjoy doing so. The only thing I ask is that people coming in new respect what has already been done and acknwoledge the history and serve humbly without seeking self glorification, or any sort of political power. This is how I seek to serve as well. I also don't like it when people lack faith, think that certain things cannot be done, and try to convince you that they cannot be done. I add this in because this is the only thing that may frustrate me about working with others, although I do like to be made aware of potential challenges that could come up.

I hope and pray that more people who wish to serve together will continue coming into the picture and those who have other motives will go away and/or stay away. Glory be to God through his son Jesus Christ who is the ultimate example of a servant. Amen.

Oh, let me just quickly add that GreatNonprofits named Project Esperanza as a Top-Rated Non-Profit for 2012 after we received 10 positive reviews. Check out the reviews!


  1. Uganda school is not good. I wan to develop their condition. Thanks for informative posting.

    fostering allowance London

    1. Thanks, Tomas. How would you like to help?