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.
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."
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.
In addition, the church bought a cow for the community, to provide milk for the children.
Ssentale Jude, who runs the school in Sabina, said the church-funded improvements at the library have been a boon to the entire community. They have boosted literacy levels in the school, helped the school staff keep up-to-date on teaching techniques and made the library a popular community resource center and meeting place.
"The impact (of the church's help) is enormous," Jude wrote in an email. "The benefits are really numerous."
Coming to Columbia
The connection between Columbia and the Children of Uganda will grow closer this winter, when the biannual Tour of Light fundraiser for the first time makes a stop in Columbia during its upcoming two-month tour of the U.S. The group will perform Jan. 17 at the Jim Rouse Theatre.
"It's really very exciting," said Linda Alpert, who is coordinating the visit to Columbia. "They've performed in New York and Chicago, all these big cities, but because of the church's support for the organization, we decided to see if we could cobble together enough interest to do it in Columbia. We're hoping to fill the Jim Rouse Theatre."
While the Alperns have been involved in charity work in the past, it was never to this extent.
"We both have what I call outreach hearts, but this is the first time we've ever sponsored a child and gotten so involved in an organization," Linda said.
They don't expect that involvement to end anytime soon. For one thing, they have their new six-year-old child to educate and nurture. For another thing, they're loving the experience.
"It's not a faceless thing," Steve Alpern said of working through COU. "A lot of charities are doing very good work. But if I give money to, whatever, I'm assuming it does some good, but I don't get the immediate feel of the good it did. Here, we can see how a young man who had nothing now probably will be in the middle class of Uganda."
Also, Linda added, "He has a feeling that he has a family. I think that's the key. It's so personal. … You give the money and you see the results, and that's really important."
For information on the upcoming Tour of Light in Columbia, call 443-718-9680 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information on Children of Uganda, go to http://www.childrenofuganda.org.