Columbia residents Linda and Steve Alpern recently returned from a trip to Uganda that combined elements of a family reunion, a wildlife adventure, a foreign relations mission, spiritual outreach, and the performing arts. They talk about their experience at home in Columbia on Friday, September 6, 2013. (Doug Kapustin, Baltimore Sun / September 5, 2013)

This summer, Linda and Steve Alpern took the trip of a lifetime, a two-week journey to Africa where they saw mountain gorillas, elephants and hippos in the wild, the aptly named Impenetrable Forest in Bwindi National Park, and — best of all and for the first time — their 22-year-old African son, Joseph.

 "It was so emotional," said Linda, 62, last week in the couple's Columbia home, recalling their meeting with Joseph in Kampala. "It almost makes me start crying again, talking about it."

"He's a wonderful young man," said Steve, 66. "We spent a week travelling around the country with just Joseph and had a ball."

Joseph Ssegendo is not the Alperns' biological son or even their legally adopted son. But he addresses them "Mom" and "Dad," calls Linda's adult daughter form a previous marriage his American sister, and the Alperns photo-shop him into family photos.

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Joseph is one of the hundreds of orphans and other needy children supported by Children of Uganda, a U.S. nonprofit that pairs up children from that AIDS-ravished, impoverished nation with American sponsors. Those sponsors help pay for the child's upkeep and education, and also are expected to cultivate a close, caring relationship with the child.

Linda and Steve Alpern learned about the program seven years ago when many of the COU children were in the area performing with the "Tour of Light," a biannual fundraiser for the nonprofit. Sonni Aribiah, a fellow member of Columbia's Christ Episcopal Church, hosted the children in his home, and the Alperns met them there.

"We fell in love with them," recalled Steve, a retired federal worker, who has since become a member of the COU board. "They were great kids — fun to be with."

The Alperns especially bonded with one vivacious six-year-old girl. "We came back and decided we wanted to sponsor a child," said Linda, a retired systems engineer for the Department of Defense. "We thought we'd get a six-year-old girl, and instead we got Joseph."

Joseph, a young teenager at the time, was not an orphan. But his father had died of AIDS and his mother was institutionalized.

Over the past half-dozen years, Linda and Steve Alpern grew close to Joseph through letters, email, Skype and Facebook. They paid for his schooling, including a brief stint in culinary school and a more successful stint in a cosmetology school, from which he recently graduated. He now works in a salon in Kampala, Uganda's capital and largest city.

But while they felt close to Joseph, the Alperns had never met him in person until they and three other Christ Episcopal Church members flew to Uganda in late July to attend a meeting of the COU board, and to tour the country.

While there, they also met six-year-old Stella Dhuke, the Ugandan child the couple began sponsoring after Joseph graduated. They gave her a "Hello Kitty" T-shirt, which she put on immediately.

They also attended a community meeting, met with government officials and toured the school the children attend. "It was incredible," Linda said. "These kids are really a family to each other. They've created their own family."

Columbia-Uganda connection

Linda and Steve Alpern are only two of the members of Christ Episcopal Church who have established a strong connection between Columbia and Uganda.

That connection began with Sonni Aribiah. Born in Nigeria, Aribiah became acquainted with the orphans of Uganda about 10 years ago when his supervisor at the World Bank asked him to be part of a group planning COU's then-upcoming Tour of Light fundraiser. Aribiah agreed. After attending the show in Washington, he was so taken with the children that he later went to California later to spend a week with the group at its last U.S. stop.

"I knew nothing about the group at the time," he recalled recently. "But those kids were so full of life. I decided immediately to sponsor a girl."

It was in California that Aribiah met his future wife, Theresa, a former orphan and member of the tour, and that relationship cemented his dedication to the cause. Like Steve Alpern, Aribiah is now a member of the COU board.

Meanwhile, Aribiah brought his cause to the attention of the Alperns and other church members. The church now has designated Children of Uganda as its official international mission.

 Among other things, the church has helped establish a community library in one of the COU-run schools in Sabina, Uganda. The church has paid for a librarian, computers, Internet access and new shelves, and church members collected some 85 boxes of used books and shipped them to Uganda to stock those new shelves.