While schools in the United States are open for the 2013-2014 academic year, one school in Wankoba Mukono – Mukono District, Uganda, won’t open until January. In fact, it can’t open now, as it is still under construction.

But when the John Paul II Vocational Training Center does open, it will be continuing the mission of its founding director, Sr. Marie Nakitende, 46, a member of the Little Sisters of St. Francis, to provide education for young Ugandan women.

That mission is born of the founder’s personal experience.

“Without education, I would not be any better. I wouldn’t have the power to make a difference,” she said during an interview June 18 at Alverno College, where she received her undergraduate degree in business management and computer science in 2006.

If you would like to help

Contributions for the John Paul II Vocational Training Center in Uganda may be sent to:
John Paul II Vocational Training Center
c/o Jim Oppermann, Vice President, Finance and Management Services
Alverno College, P.O. Box 343922, Milwaukee, WI 53234-3922

Among those she met as an Alverno student was Art Wigchers. With his help and that of others, used computers were collected, refurbished and shipped to Uganda. When Sr. Marie went home, she started a computer center.

Recognizing that Sr. Marie’s talent, drive and vision could have a great impact upon education in Uganda, Wigchers and his wife, Mary Ann, members of St. Joseph Parish, Wauwatosa, and Tom and Lynne VanHimbergen, members of the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist Parish, raised the money to bring her back to the United States. She continued her education at Cardinal Stritch University, earning a master’s degree in business administration in 2009 and a doctorate in higher education and leadership in 2012. At Stritch, Sr. Marie was mentored by Tom Van Himbergen, the university’s then-vice president for finance.

 “Deep down in my heart I had the desire to give back and to train those who may not get the chance to go to college,” Sr. Marie said. “But I never had a way how to do it, but then I started talking.”

Because education in Uganda is a business, girls, usually around the age of 14, drop out of school because their parents cannot afford to have them educated.
“I see so many children who are deserving (of an education), but they are under served,” Sr. Marie said, adding that the dropouts become young parents with no marketable knowledge in the business community.

Wigchers noted that 45-50 percent of population in East Africa is 14 or younger.

“Think of the problems they’re going to have if they don’t help these kids,” he said.

The John Paul II Vocational Training Center, comprised of three classrooms, will train the girls in sewing, cooking and business skills. They will also learn English and computer skills.

“I want to position them in companies,” Sr. Marie said. “How I look at doing that is by establishing a relationship with companies – small businesses which are looking for people to employ. Take these kids there, do these internships, and after they are done, they get the job, and then the work continues.”

Sustainability of the school, which will serve 50 women in the beginning and eventually reach 150, is the challenge that Sr. Marie and her supporters must overcome. The initial phase for building the school, providing it with water and electricity is $75,000, which was provided by the Wigchers and the VanHimbergens.

“We’ll need to help seed the school’s operation for a period of time, but the key here is that sister will have to get these internships because that’s how you build sustainability and a school being able to survive on its own,” Wigchers said.

VanHimbergen added, “It’ll never be to the point where tuition will be able to keep it going. It (tuition) is a very small amount.”

The individuals who donated the land on which the school is being built included extra land to use for raising vegetables. These will not only be used for cooking but to sell in the local community in order to help with sustainability.

Wigchers, who has visited Rwanda, Kenya, Ethiopia, South Sudan, and Uganda more than a dozen times, said, “We’re realistic in knowing the practical problems. We’re not going in with stars in our eyes.”

In the partnership among the three parties, Wigchers and VanHimbergen do more than provide funding.

“Where Art and I bring value to Sister is in asking questions like, ‘What are you going to do for electricity? What are you going to do for water? Latrines?’” VanHimbergan said.

“It’s not that uncommon to have somebody who’ll draft up a plan who has never had water in a facility, so they don’t think about drains,” Wigchers said. “Things we take for granted you have to consider, and you have to consider having people trained to maintain things. It’s not just getting a generator, but do you have someone who will know how to maintain it and get parts if you need them?”

While Wigchers and VanHimbergen provide practical advice, Sr. Marie, according to Wigchers, provides “cultural insight.”

“I asked her, ‘Why was the guard being paid as much or more than the teacher?’ That’s a cultural thing. If you don’t pay them adequately, you don’t get results,” he said, referring to the potential theft of building materials if they are left unguarded.

Despite natural or man-made obstacles, Sr. Marie remains focused on helping women better themselves.  

“I was given the opportunity; I’ve been blessed with a good education; I feel I have to give back,” she said. “Look at what those who are going through what I went through. If I don’t reach out to them and open the door, they don’t have any hope. They want to succeed, they want to achieve their goals.”  Brian T. Olszewski, Catholic Herald Staff