When John and Joyce Wanda immigrated from their native Uganda to the United States in 1996, they knew they wanted to one day give back to the country they were leaving behind.
The husband and wife had been some of the lucky few whose parents placed an importance on education and insisted they finished their schooling, which is what eventually brought them to their new home in Arlington, Virginia. While raising their four kids in the U.S., they were able to see firsthand how differently the American education system was set up from that in Uganda, where they sometimes didn’t have electricity, frequently didn’t have teachers and never had a school lunch.
So in 2004, John and Joyce decided that the way they would give back to their home would be by bringing an American-style education system to Uganda. That year, the duo founded the Arlington Academy of Hope, later renamed REACH for Uganda in 2020. The nonprofit organization provides an education to hundreds of students in rural eastern Uganda each year, serves thousands of students in other Ugandan schools via an outreach program, and also provides two medical clinics to thousands of patients on a monthly basis.
Each year, almost 1,000 students go through the REACH for Uganda education program, which includes a primary school and a scholarship program for those attending secondary school. More than 200 of those students have since graduated from university. John said most of the students who graduate from their programs return to their homes to work, further inspiring their communities to place a greater emphasis on education. Just this year, one of their students graduated with a post-graduate degree in nuclear physics, becoming the first woman to graduate with that kind of degree in their community.
“You can see a real change in the attitudes of the people and the way they do things, but also the way they take responsibility for their own lives,” John said.
Aside from the help they provide the people of Uganda, John and Joyce are also changing the lives of people from the United States. With the exception of 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, John and Joyce travel to Uganda each year along with a group of volunteers, including a group of high school students.
“It’s really seeing what we can do in our own small way to help make a difference for the children who we left behind, but also one way of connecting the community where we currently live and the community where we come from,” Joyce said.
Anyone with any interest in helping out is welcome to accompany the Wandas on their trip. The volunteers help with community projects and the two medical clinics, which are both in hard-to-reach areas and have so far helped more than 30,000 patients.
The high school students who travel with them also meet with their Ugandan youth counterparts. Joyce said one of her favorite memories of her time with REACH for Uganda has been seeing American and Ugandan youths who have been corresponding with each other meet for the first time, and embrace as if they were siblings. John added that the volunteers come back with a different perspective on their responsibilities in the world.
“When they come back, they really are change agents in their own communities and their own schools to support the REACH for Uganda program,” he said.
REACH for Uganda Vice President Holly Hawthorne and her husband Dean Scribner, a REACH board member, first met the family around 2003, when the Wandas’ son attended Arlington Traditional School where Holly is principal. John had reached out to her to ask for the school’s leftover pencils so he could send them to a school he was building in Uganda. After hearing what John and Joyce were working on, Holly and Dean were immediately enthralled and wanted to help out.
Since 2005, Holly has traveled to Uganda to visit Arlington Junior School four times and Dean five. They described the trips as heartwarming, and the Wandas themselves as hardworking and giving.
“The saying that one person can make a difference — I think people say that but they don’t believe it. I am telling you that is the case with the Wandas,” Holly said. “It’s unbelievable what they’ve done, and the vision and drive they’ve had to want to go back and help their communities prosper and grow.”
John and Joyce are currently thinking about opening up their own secondary school in Uganda as well. Their ultimate goal, however, is to transform their entire community by becoming a model that can be followed by anyone who wants to promote education in their own area. To do this, they offer teacher training and showcase the aspects of their organization that can be easily replicated elsewhere.
“We feel the ultimate goal for us and for the people we work with, is that at the end of the day, we leave this world a better place than when we found it,” John said.
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