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The Journals are the premier publications for high-quality, hyperlocal news and advertising in Monmouth County, New Jersey

Jan 06, 2021

Red Bank Teacher Partners with Sister to Help Ugandan Children

By Lauren Lavelle

For many, the word “education” has been defined differently in 2020. Books now live inside computer screens; pencils and paper have been exchanged for keyboards and Word documents; and many classrooms sit empty, the usual occupants at home, trying their best to grasp their lessons as a pandemic surges around them. But what about children in third-world countries who have never had access to books at all, let alone the online versions that children in the United States have come to know so well?

“I’m a teacher, and during COVID-19, you saw firsthand how there is such an inequity in the United States with education and students having access to the internet and Chromebooks,” said Kristina Rems, of Red Bank. “In the United States, there’s so much more support, and people are much more aware that there is inequality and inequity, but in third-world countries, you kind of forget about it because you’re not there.”

To help bridge the little-known education gap in third-world countries, Rems and her sister, Alexandra Cruz, a pharmacist from Jersey City, founded Waves of Education, a nonprofit organization that aims to raise funds to build a primary school in Uganda. The sisters originally launched the initiative in 2018 after Cruz returned from a mission trip to Uganda with Waves of Health, a nonprofit medical outreach organization. While there, Cruz witnessed the extreme poverty the children of the small village of Kavule had to endure and said she knew she needed to help. Her want became even stronger after bonding with Ndagire Kevin, a young girl with a tumultuous upbringing.

 

Kristina Rems and Stella, a child Rems and her husband sponsor.

“She was about 6 years old. She had ringworm in her head, she was very malnourished, her clothing was tattered, and she didn’t speak any English, but right away she was just so smiley and tried to be part of the group,” Cruz said.

According to Cruz, Kevin became her “shadow” and offered to help out in the pharmacy. Their growing bond prompted Cruz to ask a member of the Little Sisters of St. Francis, the mission’s in-country partner, about Kevin’s past. Cruz soon found out that Kevin had been abandoned by her mother and estranged from her alcoholic father and was living in temporary housing and attending a day school.

“[The sisters] said they really wanted her to go to their boarding school, so I said, ‘Okay, what’s it going to cost for her to go to boarding school?’” Cruz said. “For the cost of a small cup of coffee per day, this child would be able to go to boarding school. She’d get an education, clothing, food. She really had no chance otherwise to make her life any better, and now she’d have that opportunity.”

Cruz decided to sponsor Kevin’s education and, nearly three years since their first meeting, Kevin is doing better than ever.

“She’s thriving,” Cruz said. “She’s happy, she’s healthy, she speaks perfect English and is doing really well.”

After Cruz shared her experience with Rems, Rems decided to sponsor a classmate of Kevin and, as word got out about the sisters’ new project, more people wanted to join in on the endeavor.

“I kept sharing my story, and the response was always, ‘I want to help. I want to sponsor a child.’ So we started this informal sponsorship program,” Cruz said. “Now we have about 16 kids who are sponsored. Some go to day school, some go to boarding school, and they’re all different ages.”

Cruz and Rems wanted to do more. As quarantine began and interest in sponsorships continued to rise, the sisters decided to take their project to the next level and build something that they thought could potentially reshape these kids’ futures.

“We realized people were actually really interested in this, so if we’re going to make something more concrete and actually make an initiative, why not build a primary school?” Cruz said “We’ll start from the ground up. We’ll have some level of control over the school, and then we can build a proper sponsorship program as time goes on and as the need arises at that specific school rather than one child who’s here, one child who’s there.”

With support from Waves of Health and the Little Sisters of St. Francis, Cruz and Rems got to work.

“Our goal is to build a seven-room school with a kitchen and living quarters for the teachers,” Rems said. “We can actually start building once we raise enough money for a four-room school which would be when we raise $60,000. Right now, we’re at just a little over $30,000.”

Kevin (left) and Stella

Alexandra Cruz and Ndagire Kevin

Cruz and Rems plan to have a location for the school selected by March 2021. Once an area is chosen, the sisters want to get the surrounding communities involved in the initiative.

“We definitely want to involve the community and make sure the locals are part of the process so they can eventually take ownership and really prosper from having the school there,” Cruz said.

Ideally, after the first primary school is built, Cruz and Rems hope to expand Waves of Education by building a secondary school nearby.

“A huge problem in Uganda is that, although there are a lot of primary schools, there aren’t as many secondary schools, so students will get an education up until a certain point, but then after they get that education, there’s no opportunity for them to go further,” Rems said. “If we build a primary school, building a secondary school right by it will allow the children to have a smooth transition from one part of education to another, so we would love to be able to build a secondary school.”

Cruz said she and Rems simply want to provide these children with opportunities they have never had before.

“The bottom line is an education for these children is life-changing,” she said. “They’re stuck in this cycle of generational poverty that there’s no way of escaping so when we think about it that way and realize how much of a change it makes in these kids’ lives, I think that’s why we connect to this project so much. There are so many people who have so much less and don’t have an opportunity and that’s what we want to do, just provide an opportunity.”