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Teen visits Ugandan orphans through Change the Truth

Most eighth-graders dream of sleeping the day away or taking a vacation on a warm, sunny beach during winter break. Not 14-year-old Leah Sosland. Her dream was to volunteer at an orphanage in Uganda.

The daughter of Jane and Josh Sosland, Leah’s dream came true this past December when she and her father traveled to Uganda. The pair spent a little more than a week volunteering for the Change the Truth Foundation at the St. Mary Kevin Orphanage Motherhood in Kajjansi, Uganda.

Leah said she learned about CTT when she was about 8 years old from her friend and neighbor Gloria Baker Feinstein. She’s been interested in helping the organization ever since.

“I went to one of her fundraisers and I saw a video about it that really stuck with me,” Leah explained of her initial interest in the organization.

Feinstein founded CTT in 2007 following a trip she made to the orphanage in 2006. The non-profit organization is dedicated to supporting the needs of the children at St. Mary Kevin Orphanage, which is home to about 180 orphans and disadvantaged children. The orphanage has few resources because of limited government programs and extremely high poverty levels. The fund assists the orphans by providing them with shelter, food, security, clothing, medicine, love, access to education and training in vocational skills.

When Leah originally saw the CTT video, produced by Lynne Melcher, she decided she really wanted to go to Uganda.

“In the video there was a girl who was around my age now who went to the orphanage,” Leah said. “I just thought it was pretty neat that someone so young could go there.”

When Leah attended that very first fundraiser about six years ago, Feinstein noted that she even wrote in the guest book that she wanted to go to the orphanage.

“She never gave up on that dream to go. The children at the orphanage fell in love with her and are hoping she’ll return some day. Her kind and gentle nature made the children feel special and very loved. Leah has been their friend and advocate for three years already, and I suspect she’ll continue to be in their corner for years to come,” Feinstein said.

Each December, Feinstein assembles a group of volunteers who travel to the orphanage. Team members travel at their own expense for the opportunity to spend about two weeks with the children. Feinstein said the volunteers just want to make a difference by spending quality time with the children. Volunteers help plant gardens, paint dormitories and install mosquito netting. They sing and dance, play cards and read books. They hold hands with and give lots of hugs to children who have lost so much and have so little to call their own. The friendships the orphans and the volunteers establish are deep and long lasting.

Leah did the usual things to prepare for a trip to Africa, including getting vaccinated for yellow fever. But she didn’t have to prepare much for her mission, which was to be a friend and mentor to the orphans.

“I knew I would be doing some art with the younger kids and girls my age. I really wasn’t so sure of what to expect when I got there. I was surprised to find out you just hang out with the kids and that’s what really makes it amazing,” she said.

Because it was winter break in Uganda, Leah said there were about half the number of kids at the orphanage as usual.

“A lot of them have aunts or sometimes even parents who just don’t have the resources to take care of them all year round. But they come home for maybe Christmas and when they can afford the transportation,” she explained.

She spent the day at the orphanage, walking about a mile to get there from where they stayed in the village. She arrived around breakfast time, which she said usually consisted of porridge. The lunch meal was often rice and posho. Posho is similar to grits and is made from ground up corn flour and water. It has a thick consistency which looks like a stiff batch of mashed potatoes.

Since the volunteers were at the orphanage on Christmas, she saw the children treated to a feast.

“They got chicken and beef with peanut sauce with their posho and beans,” Leah said. The group from CTT brought presents for the children with them, giving each child a deck of cards, a candy cane and a cap.

While she was there, Leah noticed that some of the kids didn’t look as healthy as those she is used to seeing here.

“Some of the kids that are my age are a lot shorter than me and they just don’t look like they are 14,” she said.

Leah also noticed how seriously the students take their studies. She said the lack of materials makes it a struggle for them as well.

“They don’t have books, the teacher has the only book and everything is copied onto the blackboard. Then the kids have to write it down, so it’s a very slow process.

“It’s also really rigorous. In secondary school, which is our high school, kids my age wake up at 4 in the morning to prepare and start their lessons at 7 and they go to sleep at 10 or 11. So they really don’t get much sleep and they are studying really hard because they know how important education is,” she continued.

Education is not free in Uganda, so many kids can’t afford to continue on to secondary school.

“You can sponsor a child through Change the Truth,” she said. “That helps them pay for school.”

This trip isn’t the first time Leah has assisted CTT. She chose to raise money for the fund as her mitzvah project prior to becoming a Bat Mitzvah at Congregation Beth Shalom. Last year she participated in the fund’s annual local fundraiser, which auctions off banana dolls. The dolls are crafted by students and volunteers at the orphanage using fiber that is stripped from the base of banana trees. Once the dolls get here, local artists decorate them; then they are sold in silent and live auctions.

As a volunteer this year, Leah had the opportunity to learn how to make the dolls. She doesn’t know yet whether she will actually decorate a doll for this year’s auction, but hopes she will be one of the few who gets the opportunity to do so.

Leah said her father traveled to Uganda with her hoping she would have a good experience. His main priority, she believes, was to watch out for her.

“But by the end I think it was so much more to him than that. I went off on my own with the kids a lot while my dad had his own little posse of boys,” she said.

Josh Sosland said he owes his daughter an “incredible debt because of this trip.”

“The truth is I never would have gone had she not asked — and asked and asked — and it was a great experience beyond what I could have imagined. It was a thrill to watch Leah with these kids. Being with her also really made it much easier for me to get to know the very special children at the orphanage. Rather than just being ‘the old guy’ in the group, I was ‘Leah’s father,’ so I couldn’t be all bad!” he said.

Leah said saying goodbye to the kids she got close with in that short time was hard. But she’s keeping in touch with them.

“I’m writing letters to the kids. They write you goodbye letters and they want you to reply back. They keep those letters for a really long time. I’m also planning on going to the fundraisers when I can and I hope to go back sometime soon, maybe next December with my mom,” she said.