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Dispatches from Uganda: SOLES Alumnus Sees Strength Through AidChild

Dispatches from Uganda: SOLES Alumnus Sees Strength Through AidChild

Editor's Note: A water quality and public health research project in Uganda has the full attention of an interdisciplinary group — including USD faculty members, students, President James T. Harris and his wife, Mary — all of whom are excited to show what it means to make a difference in the world. Ryan T. Blystone, editor of the USD News Center, is in Uganda to document the trip.

As our multiple vans approached the large gates to let us into the AidChild Leadership Institute in Entebbe, I felt a mix of anxiousness and excitement.

USD Uganda Trip: January 2020

For the past two months of 2019, I had messaged back and forth with AidChild CEO Nathaniel Dunigan ’14 (PhD) about the possibility of a visit. I relished the chance to reconnect with the former Dammeyer Fellow in Global Education Leadership who did great work with former SOLES Dean and current Kroc School Professor Paula Cordeiro. I also looked forward to seeing a connection develop in Uganda between AidChild and USD via USD President James T. Harris and Chemistry Professor Jim Bolender, who has made nearly 20 trips to Uganda since 2008.

As Bolender's interdisciplinary project in Uganda centers on water quality through the lens of chemistry (water testing), public health (nursing) and examining filtration methods (engineering), I suggested if there was time in our schedule for even a short visit that it would be rewarding to meet Dunigan.

Harris, Bolender, Hahn School of Nursing and Health Science Professor Dr. Martha Fuller, Shiley-Marcos School of Engineering's Frank Jacobitz, Biology's Keith Macdonald and students were given a short tour of AidChild's offices before gathering in a shade-filled grassy area with chairs arranged in a large circle that were filled by our group, Dunigan, staff and 38 AidChild interns.

"This is what it's all about, we want to have a conversation and learn from each other," Dunigan said.

Prior to his introduction, members of the USD group walked around the circle to shake hands with each intern. Students spoke with interns, Macdonald chatted about mosquitoes and the local water. Harris explained USD's stance as a Changemaker school and noted that the efforts of Dunigan and AidChild were a prime example of the entrepreneurial spirit that exists on campus. Bolender spoke about his backstory in Uganda and gave an overview of the project.

Then, Dunigan shared the Aidchild story. The USD group learned how the Uganda-based nonprofit -— first in Masaka and with subsequent fundraising business ventures such as the former Olubugo, a restaurant opened by USD alumnus James Brennan '96, that is currently a café, art gallery and gift shop near the Uganda Equator that includes with AirBnB rooms for rent in Entebbe — has been steadfast in helping HIV-positive children thrive since 2000.

First serving children in centers in Uganda, AidChild was the first in the country to provide free antiretroviral (ARV) therapy for children, partnering with the AIDS Healthcare Foundation and The AIDS Support Organization. In 2002, AidChild was recognized as a model of pediatric HIV/AIDS care for the continent by the Uganda Ministry of Health, USAID and the Center for Disease Control. This model, Dunigan says, has served thousands of children across the continent.

Perhaps the best thing about these efforts is seeing children helped by ARV grow into young adults and college students who are transitioning their own lives. As their focus evolves, so does that of AidChild.

"As those children who've lived on ARV for so long are living to adult age, we want them to be empowered with education that allows them to be successful in life," Dunigan says.

Thus, a rebranded name, AidChild Leadership Institute (ALI), emerged. Traditional education is the norm for ALI, including specialized training in languages and the arts, leadership training, job-skills training, nutrition and wellness support, spiritual formation and global citizenship exposure. Members of the organization's first cohort of ARV recipients are ALI interns.

Around the corner from the main building is ALI's Human Development Center, a new model of care for holistic and advanced development through a guided and intentional environment for living and learning. Co-developed by Dunigan and his interns, this effort is a hands-on team approach to early childhood education that includes various media and a fast-paced daily schedule.

Dunigan, whose higher education background includes University of Arizona and Harvard, came to USD to take an important academic step and to enhance AidChild's development.

"My experience at SOLES has had a tremendous impact on our work by empowering us to transition from caregivers to changemakers," Dunigan says. "It has given us the vision and courage to focus on the idea of an HIV-free generation. Paradigm shifts often come from scholarship, engagement with those who disagree with you, as well as the support of those who 'get it,' such as tremendously qualified and invested mentors, faculty and advisers."

His PhD earns cultural respect in Uganda, which has been crucial to take ALI to the next level. "Getting the PhD has made me stronger; when one member of our team is strengthened, everyone is strengthened."

The organization's true strength, he believes, comes when it shines on ALI successes, including that of Dorah Dunigan, a medical student at Makerere University who was a 2012 Hansen Summer Leadership Institute Fellow (the program is hosted at USD), who just returned from a month-long United States visit as a Brinkmoeller Fellow.

"Whenever we can make the ALI narrative about our interns, our students, our kids and their success instead of the process or about me, we win," Dunigan says. "We can build buildings, make lovely campuses and create programs that look and feel amazing, but when we can introduce you to Dorah, an HIV researcher-in-training who will find the cure one day; or Julius, a doctor of pharmacy in training or Lillian, a graduate who is now a teacher working with the region's neediest children, we are well-represented."

— Ryan T. Blystone

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