It happened again just like it always does. It happens each time I leave the field after spending days in Africa with the Right to Play programs. I’m left feeling so full it’s almost painful. Literally spilling over with the sounds, sights and human encounters that leave me feeling almost numb. These feelings arise because there is only so much a person can take in. Only so much goodness to be witnessed until it’s simply too much.
Such is the case now. I left Uganda yesterday and am only just beginning to digest all that the trip offered me. All that Rwanda left me with before the Right to Play field visit ended. Eight days in Africa feels like eight weeks in our version of the real world in North America. At least the part of which I move within.
Sweet Caroline is the woman in Uganda I can blame in the best of ways for making these emotions implode. They were already brewing inside but she blew the top off my spiritual capacity. Caroline who works for the Uganda country office of Right to Play. The very Caroline who had me and Erit, the National office athlete program officer in the USA, in tears only yesterday afternoon.
The setting was a small school classroom full of the sweetest of sweet children. A classroom for the multitude of Ugandan kiddies from the slums that we visited that had them reading from basic books. Books provided by a Canadian woman to add to the play aspect of Right to Play. We learned that most of these little ones would likely never have the chance to go to school. They would never have the opportunity to learn to read and write.
So, like Right to Play is able to do in all the schools in terms of motivating the young ones to come to school because of the guaranteed play aspect, the RTP community initiative there in Kampala was used to get the small children in the class for at least a short simple story’s worth of reading before the engaging in play.
We listened to the kids recite the lines of the book about the little kids helping their Mom out by taking care of their little brother when she went out to work. As we listened, Caroline from RTP Uganda started to tell us how they would not have the chance to learn. These basic books were better than nothing and ‘at least they know the basics so they have some understanding’.
Caroline then went on to tell us her story. Well, it actually wasn’t her story. It was the story of some of her RTP kids. Her story was casually mentioned throughout.
Caroline had a university degree in something like childhood social development. She had the education to get her many different jobs. But she found something that interested her that didn’t pay much of anything. In fact, it was volunteer. She read about the RTP initiatives in Uganda and they resonated with her. She thought she would give a little of her time and caring and then move onto something else.
And then she went into the communities volunteering as a coach. Working with the kids. One such kid was struggling with his health so badly that his family had given up on him. This little guy was HIV positive through no fault of his own. He was eleven years old and was all but left for dead. He was born with it and his health had deteriorated.
Caroline discovered this little guy and got him to a clinic. Got him some help somehow. She brought him into the RTP play days and programs when he was strong enough. He came alive with play and with the love of Caroline. His parents began to see he was not weak anymore and in fact, he was beginning to thrive. It was as if the support from Caroline and the engagement in the play was his lifeline.
She then told us why she cared so much about this little boy. She told us that she had lost her father to HIV and just couldn’t watch this kid suffer alone. And now that she is no longer in his area so much because she’s not just a volunteer for RTP Uganda, she is a full time employee with over 400 coaches under her watch, she makes sure that one of the local coaches goes and makes sure he gets his medication and that he comes to play in the scheduled programs.
She really believes she is doing something good. Seeing the children happy and confident makes her feel like work is not work. She told us she would do it all for free only to feel the satisfaction of providing the space and the place for kids to feel they have something to live for. She believes this thing is Right to Play.
Caroline is one of the many messengers for RTP in the field. She is a young woman who shines because she loves the kids so much. She goes out into the remote places. She constantly goes and checks on her coaches to make sure they are continually inspired and they know that their work is valued.
Her connection to kids not getting help and not knowing what help is available is palpable. Sweet Caroline is an angel, if there is such a thing, and she puts her loving embrace on every person she encounters. Including me.
Caroline said thank you to me for sharing my story with everyone from RTP Uganda a few nights before. I told them how their programs and the impact on the children inspired me to win the Olympics one time. I brought that gold medal to share with them all. I spoke of the transformation from struggle to joy. The human condition that is so glaringly real in Africa. She thanked me by saying ‘I really got what you said….I wrote something on my facebook about struggle to joy…’
It’s me who got so much from meeting this amazing woman. Day in and day out she works hard to make the learning and growth possible for the children. She and all the individuals in the field make Right to Play come to life. She makes it larger than life and I am forever grateful to Sweet Caroline.