Why the heartbreak of Humboldt is touching teenagers in Uganda

When word of the Humboldt Broncos bus accident reached Jinja, Uganda, there was profound sadness at the St. James Orthopedic Clinic and among the hundreds of young patients it has helped over the past five years.

The clinic is a partner with One4Another International, a Canadian-based charity which helps children with birth defects or injuries get on their feet, sometimes for the first time.

The charity is supported almost entirely by young Canadian hockey players through about 25 hockey programs, primarily in Ontario.

But it does more than raise money for surgery, it connects the young Canadians with the Ugandan youth they are helping through letters, videos and gift exchanges.

That way the Ugandan children feel a connection with the Canadian teams, and the players in this country get to know the children they are helping in Africa.

Children helped by One4Another recovering at the health centre in Jinja. (One4Another)

That’s why 13-year-old Sadam Lukwago felt compelled to throw on his Oakville Rangers jersey on Thursday, and travel an hour from his home in Njeru to the charity’s headquarters in Jinja to hold up a sign of support for the people of Humboldt.

“He came wearing his jersey, his pants, his crocs which were also sent and was more than happy to be the one to send the message on behalf of all the other 18th kids,” Glenn Pascoe, founder of the charity, says of the boy in a photo that has since gone viral in Canada.

18th kids refers to the program that connected Ontario’s Oakville Rangers organization to Lukwago, and made him the honourary 18th member of the team.

The boy in the photo

Lukwago was born with a club foot that made it difficult for him to get around, go to school, or even dream of a better future. In the corner of Uganda where he was born there are few prospects for disabled children like him.

Photos of Sadam Lukwago before and after surgery to correct his club foot. (One4Another)

Pascoe describes him as a shy and quiet boy whose life has changed remarkably since getting surgery to repair his foot last November. The combination of his immobility and his family’s lack of financial resources meant Lukwago could rarely attend school. Now thirteen, he’s only in grade four. But through the support of the charity and the Ranger’s players he’s now able to begin pursuing his dreams.

“We asked him the other day what he’s hoping to do with his life and right away he just said ‘I want to be a mechanic for phones and computers, electronics,’ and he said ‘I want to run my own business.'”

Lifetime connections for Canadian kids

Shannon Ritchie’s two sons, 13-year-old Calum and 15 year-old Ethan have both helped raise money for children in Uganda through their association with the Oakville Ranger’s organization.

“I think it’s given them a greater appreciation for what they have and that there are people in this world who just based on where they’re born and their circumstance are in a much more difficult, challenging situation,” she says.

Each year the boys raise about seventy dollars apiece through bottle drives and other fundraisers to help pay for the surgeries. Ritchie says a key difference is they get to know the children they are helping.

“You see the immediate impact of the money that the boys raise,” she says. “We actually exchange, there’s YouTube videos and there’s correspondence between so we actually see the progress that the little boy makes, or the little girl because there’s also little girls who have been sponsored.”  

Calum and Ethan Ritchie have created lasting connections by raising money to help support surgeries for children in Uganda. (Shannon Ritchie)

“You actually see them immediately after surgery and then through the recovery process.”

Ritchie believes her sons are better people because of their participation in the program.

How hockey connected with a clinic in Jinja

Glenn Pascoe has worked as a hospital chaplin and in homeless shelters, but it was doing relief work in Uganda where he found his niche.

“We were so moved by the circumstances of the families in Uganda who couldn’t get surgical care for their children we decided to start fundraising for one child at a time, and then using local Ugandan surgeons for the operations,” he explains.

Glenn Pascoe leads One4Another International, which helps children in Uganda get much needed surgery. (One4Another International)

But he quickly found allies in the hockey community and six surgeries in 2012 swelled to 260 last year. Pascoe’s organization hopes to assist more than three hundred children this year.

The support of hockey teams and the connections between the players and the children they are helping has also created something of a hockey culture in the towns and villages near Jinja a city of 73,000 in southeastern Uganda.

In a culture where soccer is the dominant sport, and ice is a relative unknown, street hockey with mini-sticks is gaining a foothold among youth. There’s also great admiration and respect for the Canadians who lace up their skates and play a sport that was once unknown to many in Africa.

So when tragedy struck Canada’s hockey community last week, the people of Jinja joined in the grief.

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