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Lessons Learned Living And Serving Orphans In Uganda

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Back in 2000, Mike McCoy of Danville thought he had his retirement planned.

The Danville businessman had purchased a lot in a golf course community about an hour from Squaw Valley so he could spend his winters skiing and his summers golfing. But God, through his wife Mary Ann, had a different plan.

The AIDS epidemic was raging in sub-Saharan Africa, leaving thousands of children orphaned. Mary Ann felt called to do something about it.

That started in 2000 with a $250 donation to sponsor an orphaned child in Uganda. And that led to a trip to Uganda to meet this sponsored child, followed by bringing her to the United States, after a divine intervention at the U.S. embassy so she could get a visa. Mike and MaryAnn then adopted her officially in 2005.

Meanwhile, Mary Ann and Mike sponsored other children and Mike suggested that his wife would need more help than the family checkbook, so she started a nonprofit organization in 2001 dedicated to caring for AIDS orphans. On a 2002 trip she worked alongside a woman named Grace. The villages where they worked were full of widows whose husbands had died of AIDS and it was just a matter of time before they would die. 18 years ago, being HIV-positive meant death because the antiretrovirals (ARVs) drugs were not available, so Mary Ann was stunned when Grace told her she would not see her again because she too had the disease. Grace asked Mary Ann to take care of her children.

Mary Ann promised she would do all she could, God willing. Grace died six weeks later. Mary Ann changed the non-profit’s name to Children of Grace. As Mike told members of the San Francisco Bay Barnabas Chapter, “Grace died, and Children of Grace was born.”

The organization’s mission is to provide education, health care and hope to children impacted by AIDS.

Mike made his first trip in 2005, after they decided to buy land and build a school. That led to the first of several key lessons they learned. You need to understand the culture and you can only do that when you live there. After that experience with the local partner organization, they parted ways, got out of the school business and formed an NGO focused on students’ education and personal development.

That led to them moving to Uganda, where they lived for 10 years. They’ve seen much fruit with 800 kids annually in their education programs that are complemented by health care, a mentoring program with home visits and camp programs. Over thirty students have earned University scholarships in Uganda and the USA, including two physicians in residency and another three in medical school.

Mike was particularly proud of one graduate who earned a MasterCard Foundation scholarship to Arizona State. During his senior year he was awarded the Nelson Mandela Award as the most influential black person on the campus of 82,000 students. As a result he received a 50% MBA scholarship to attend the ASU Thunderbird School of Global Management, but had no way of raising the necessary $75,000 to match it. He didn’t tell Mike because he felt they already had done so much for him. Mike finally learned of it and, encouraged by a Barnabas partner, the two of them raised the $75K in one day. To date, Children of Grace has positively impacted 10,000 Ugandan kids.

Mike shared the key lessons they learned while working in an impoverished country with a high unemployment rate: “If I walked in their shoes, believe me, I would have the same attitude. You know you get deceived. You don’t have transparency. You get lied to and your money really doesn’t go where you think it’s going to go. Projects eventually get finished, but at two to four times the cost,” he said.

That’s why living there and understanding the culture is critical. When they built the school in 2005, he felt they had good controls in place and spent the money well. It wasn’t the same for their child sponsorship program that had more money flowing through it. As a result they set up their own Ugandan nonprofit in 2007.

When doing business there, he always requires a memorandum of understanding that he said works very well with Ugandans. There’s also the understanding that to get anything done requires a facilitation fee. He uses local lawyers and noted that one time it took three submissions of the same paperwork before it moved ahead.

“I cannot give anybody a bribe. I ask the lawyer to get it done and send me the bill,” Mike said, adding:

“I will tell you this. As I look back on it today, my wife and I would not trade the last 15 years for the best golf course home, or skiing Squaw Valley, or anything else we might have done. We had a chance to kind of learn life over again. I would encourage anyone to have the experience. When we moved there, we were 65. Now we’re 75 and we’re there about six months a year. It’s kept us alive. It’s kept us healthy and we’ve learned so much. And we’ve seen God work in so many ways that you’ll never get a chance to experience here.”

Check out these other articles on giving back:

7 Ways We Can Save The World (For All Time) by Jeremy McKeen

Giving Until It Works by Glen Granholm

Charitable Giving With A Purpose: Self-Sufficiency by Larry Pollack

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About The Author:

Tim Hunt

Tim Hunt

Tim Hunt has been writing for publication for more than 50 years. He currently blogs for the Pleasanton Weekly and spent 39 years in the daily newspaper business. He has traveled to Africa on mission trips nine times and has gone to Brazil three times on healing mission trips.

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