by Grant Moser
It was in the early 1990s when Alexis Hefley decided to change her life. After a decade spent in the banking industry in San Antonio, she wanted to find “a calling.” She quit her job and moved to Washington, D.C., where she met Congressman Tony Hall (D-Ohio) and his wife Janet, who were involved with helping children in Uganda.
In 1993, she traveled to Uganda to work with children in different projects related to orphans. The country had suffered under the rule of Idi Amin in the 1970s and then through civil wars and unrest through the 1980s. The violence had left a nation of children without homes, parents or communities. Things haven’t improved greatly from then until the present. Today, Uganda has a population of 33 million, with half under the age of 15. Of those, nearly three million are orphans. It is the youngest and fastest growing population of any country in the world, according to Hefley.
She stayed there for a little over a year and then returned to run an organization that provided outreach to orphans and vulnerable children. She was there for 10 years before she decided its approach wasn’t accomplishing what she hoped for the children. “We did outreach through three different orphanages working with 1200 kids,” she explained, “but it was still a sponsorship program. In the end, the children were let out without direction. You provide for them on a very basic level, but their ability to become a member of the community or have a vision for their future was very limited.”
In 2006 she co-founded Empower African Children (EAC) with a very different philosophy: a long-term investment in orphaned children with an emphasis on education. All the students EAC works with attend boarding school or a university through their scholarship. It provides individual counseling, leadership development and career guidance. The aim is to produce future leaders who can share their gifts with their country.
Part of the EAC’s program includes Spirit of Uganda, a dance and performance troupe. Every two years it tours the United States to raise awareness of Africa and of the possibilities that exist in African children. The shows consist of traditional Ugandan dance and music with modern choreography and cultural interpretations. The 20 performers range in age from 8 to 18.
When Chestnut Hill resident Carol Horne Penn, 53, first saw Spirit of Uganda at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, she was captivated. “It was one of the most energetic and electrifying performances I’d ever seen. After that, I wanted them to come to Philadelphia,” she said.
She remembers when she learned about their background that she was astounded. “Despite what their lives had been like, the horrific things that had happened to them, the energy and joy and hope they shared was amazing. All I felt was their hope and belief in their ability to transform their lives.”
Penn worked with Annenberg to host their performances the next time they visited, and this year she was able to have Penn Charter host them. In March, St. Martin’s Episcopal Church hosted a welcome dinner and forum discussion about Uganda. The group also did an Artist in Residence day at Springside Chestnut Hill Academy.
“The tour is a fundraising venture for the program back in Uganda,” said Penn, “but it also has other goals.” They have “talk-backs” in every town where they perform to answer questions about life in Uganda, to help people understand a bit better about Africa. Hefley also hopes that the kids learn about their own cultural background, since they don’t have parents or family to teach them.
She wants the children to have a bigger world-view. Along the way, they take time to see different cities in America, places they would only ever read about, like the Golden Gate Bridge or the Liberty Bell.
Penn echoed her thoughts. “Imagine you grow up in a small place in the middle of nowhere, and you are taken to the U.S., and you get to see all these different cities you’ve heard about, and everyone is kind and nice to you along the way. How nice is that? What an amazing opportunity to be a kid from Uganda who gets to travel to America and see how you fit into a bigger world. That helps transform them.”
She also feels a bit motherly towards them. During their last tour through Philadelphia, Penn hosted their welcome dinner at her home in Chestnut Hill. She remembers the guests spread throughout the house and yard, the kids meeting new people and chatting. It was her goal to let them “get away” from the tour and just be kids and relax.
Penn is involved with Spirit of Uganda because she believes in Hefley’s vision of education as the answer. “She can truly make a difference,” said the Chestnut Hill resident. “She expects them to provide leadership and share their gifts. I think that’s critical. I don’t think I need to go to Uganda to do that. I think people who are from a country and understand the problem can best address the problem, but they need the tools to do that, and Alexis gives them those. And the best tool is to be well-educated.”
Spirit of Uganda performed in the Philadelphia area in March and will return in 2016. Over two months they traveled by bus from Texas to California to Iowa to Colorado to New Mexico to Florida to Massachusetts to Philadelphia and back to Texas. To learn more about EAC, visit www.empowerafricanchildren.org or www.facebook.com/empower.children