The Aug. 22 Rock & Rails Tip Jar recipient is The Mwebaza Foundation, founded right here in Niwot. The Mwebaza Foundation seeks to unite Colorado students from four elementary schools with students in Uganda to foster a better understanding of each group’s culture.
Before he started The Mwebaza Foundation, Dale Peterson, first-grade teacher at Niwot Elementary, fostered cultural exchange through a pen pal program. He knew this type of exchange gave children the opportunity to learn about other people and places while offering an engaging writing experience. After a pen pal exchange during 2006 with a Kenyan school, Peterson realized his students were receiving much more than little glimpses of another culture. They were actually forming strong bonds with their pen pals, gaining broader perspectives on the world and its diverse make-up.
Peterson noted that before the pen pal experience, his students believed much of the population lived similar lives, with ample opportunities for education, access to good health care, and a stable home life. Through this pen pal project, his class learned that their pen pals did not have corresponding experiences, but rather were at a disadvantage regarding education, health care, and career opportunities. Many of Peterson’s students suddenly wanted to help their pen pals and others who live under the oppression of poverty.
The next year, Peterson connected with People to People International, a cross-cultural youth exchange founded by President Dwight Eisenhower, to find the next group of pen pals for his incoming students. These first-graders would be matched with students at the Mwebaza Infant Primary School in the village of Kyengera, Uganda.
As the exchange began, Peterson also befriended the headmistress at the school, Namatovu Catherine. “It quickly became clear to me that Namatovu and her staff were exceptionally dedicated to the well-being of their students and to the development of the cross-cultural relationship with Niwot students,” Peterson said. “My class raised funds so that Mwebaza School could have a camera. Namatovu sent photos, not only of the students at school, but in their homes, doing their chores and engaging in community life.”
Peterson said that many Niwot Elementary parents and students approached him within the next few days after the photos arrived, inquiring about ways to help The Mwebaza School and its students. Peterson and Nomatovu came to an understanding that a financial exchange would not prohibit the current pen pal program, and Mwebaza would review potential improvement projects pitched by Peterson and his students before anyone proceeded with fundraising.
The first improvement project would raise money for concrete floors to replace Mwebaza’s dirt floors which often caused students to get bit by burrowing fleas. After the initial fundraising of a family-run garage sale and lemonade stand, both Peterson and Namatovu realized that enough money was raised to allow the school to replace its unsafe, small building with a more spacious one.
Peterson explained, “At this point, I concluded that an accountability mechanism was needed for the management of the funds being raised and for oversight of the projects undertaken. With the help of others in the Niwot community, I created a 501(c)(3) corporation through the State of Colorado called The Mwebaza Foundation after Mwebaza School.”
Under the foundation, the relationship grew to include all students at the Mwebaza Infant Primary School and Niwot Elementary School. The Mwebaza Foundation also expanded to incorporate the neighboring schools of Coyote Ridge Elementary (Broomfield), Coronado Hills Elementary (Thornton), and Eagle Crest Elementary (Longmont). Each shares a unique partnership with a specific Ugandan school. “The students at all four Ugandan partner schools are poor and many are orphans,” Peterson said. “Many students cannot afford to pay the meager tuition payments and are allowed to attend for free.”
Throughout the years, The Mwebaza Foundation has assisted its partner schools in a variety of projects such as constructing new classrooms to relieve overcrowding, installing compostable toilets, starting small businesses, planting gardens, implementing solar energy methods, and building wells to provide clean drinking water.
Peterson believes the biggest struggle in this line of non-profit work is constantly seeking out donations to accomplish the betterment projects at these Ugandan schools. “It can be awkward and humbling to ask others for financial help,” he said. “But, when people see that their donation is really making a difference, there is a great sense of satisfaction, for them and for us. People really do want to help, and we give them that opportunity. It becomes a real partnership between nonprofit and donor.”
Peterson described the most recent project as a huge community effort that took time, patience, fortitude, and a village to make it happen. “We worked with several schools in the St. Vrain School District and the non-profit, Homes of Living Hope, to create classrooms inside shipping containers to help relieve overcrowding at Mwebaza School. Between students, staff, and community volunteers, we estimate over 1000 people had some role in this project.”
Peterson and The Mwebaza Foundation have many goals for the growing non-profit but overall, they hope to create a sustainable environment throughout their partner schools by encouraging curriculum that includes creation of flexible microindustries that will provide income and support to the schools and villages.
The Mwebaza Foundation already has a few up and running Peterson said. “Two of our schools run taxi services that we have helped them start. One is looking to start a shoemaking industry, and another is raising goats and cows for sale. We are really just starting to work through the possibilities, but hope that the future involves the development of student entrepreneurs and more self-sufficient schools.”
Rock & Rail’s tip jar dollars will reach across the ocean to build up communities that may look a little different than our own, but whose residents have the same basic needs, hopes, and dreams.