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Film reveals plight abroad

High school students feel inspired to help children in Uganda after watching documentary on war-torn country’s youth.

October 21, 2008|By Michael Alexander

Sage Hill School students tend to get all the books they need for classes, not to mention medical attention, food, water and proper sanitation. Most of these seem obvious, but they don’t in northern Uganda, where a civil war between the government and a rebel group that uses kidnapping and child soldiers has left many residents in vast, disease-stricken relocation camps.

The two worlds came a little closer at an assembly Tuesday when speakers from the international aid group Invisible Children Inc. raised awareness about Ugandan children’s plight and offered ways to help.

Students can raise money and books however they see fit as part of the group’s Schools for Schools program, volunteer Willie Chase said. The charity’s money not only helps individual students, but also brings sorely needed help to barely equipped schools.

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“Great, these kids are in school, but in a lot of these schools there are two books,” Chase said. “The teacher has a book, and 100 students have a book.”

Students applauded loudly after seeing the documentary “GO!” which follows a group of U.S. students who went to northern Uganda in summer 2007. During their trip, they met Ugandan students and made friends: riding bicycles, trying local clothing and makeup, singing pop songs together. But they found out the darker side of these youths’ lives: One is HIV-positive, one saw his father killed, and one sees no hope in trying to get an education.

One of the students in the documentary was from close to home. Former Newport Harbor High School student Brittany Deyan, who founded that school’s Invisible Children club and raised more than $44,000, is featured prominently, coming back from her experience motivated enough to help lobby Congress for millions of dollars of aid to the region.

The motivation of youth is something Invisible Children tries to harness without smothering it with too many rules, Chase said.

“Everything we do is from the bottom up,” he said. “We don’t say to check in with our office once a week. They feel empowered.”

Student Bijou Nguyen, 17, founded Sage Hill’s Invisible Children club last September, raising about $2,400 last year. To get that money, the group raised money at the Halloween carnival, sold flowers, held a bake sale, put a jar out in the cafeteria and even used Nguyen’s piano recital as a fundraiser.

Nguyen said she asked Invisible Children to bring its tour to Sage Hill because she wanted more people to know about the cause she was working for.

“I really wanted to get them to come here,” she said. “I wanted everybody to know what I’ve been talking about.”

So did the assembly work?

In addition to the students who gathered at the merchandise tables to buy bracelets or bags (made by Ugandans and funding the group’s aid efforts) and ask questions, Nguyen saw another sign that the message may have sunk in.

“Right after the assembly, three guys from the dodgeball club came up and said, ‘We need a dodgeball tournament for this right now,’” she said.


MICHAEL ALEXANDER may be reached at (714) 966-4618 or at michael.alexander@latimes.com.

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