Bishop Ward students called to connect as ‘international citizens’

LEAVEN PHOTO BY LORI WOOD HABIGER The Hon. Ronald Reagan Okumu, right, a parliamentarian from Uganda, takes a tour of Bishop Ward High School on Feb. 12. Science teacher Ignacio Martinez-Alonso talks to Okumu about the school, while student guide senior Theresa Collins looks on. Okumu hopes to foster a relationship between Ward and a school in Uganda.
LEAVEN PHOTO BY LORI WOOD HABIGER The Hon. Ronald Reagan Okumu, right, a parliamentarian from Uganda, takes a tour of Bishop Ward High School on Feb. 12. Science teacher Ignacio Martinez-Alonso talks to Okumu about the school, while student guide senior Theresa Collins looks on. Okumu hopes to foster a relationship between Ward and a school in Uganda.

New technology helps forge bonds across the miles

by Jessica Langdon
jessica@theleaven.org

KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Tours of Bishop Ward High School here can’t help but mention the super-fast Google Fiber connection that should be up and running in the school in the next few months.

“We’re going to have the fastest Internet connection in the United States,” school president Father Michael Hermes told a special guest, the Hon. Ronald Reagan Okumu, when the parliamentarian from Uganda visited the high school on Feb. 12.

Fortunately, that state-of-the-art technology dovetails perfectly with the request Okumu brought to Ward’s students.

He hopes to link students at Ward — online and, even more importantly, in conversation and learning — with students at a rapidly growing Jesuit school in Uganda that he and many others have started.

Okumu represents the northern Uganda area of Gulu as a parliamentarian, which is comparable to being a senator, he explained to the students.

He opened his speech by urging Ward students to set out goals now for their futures.

He planned from the time he was a very young boy, he explained, and was first elected to parliament in 1996 when he was just a year out of university. He has won reelections by overwhelming margins ever since.

“You must plan while you’re still young,” he said.

Offering hope

But he knows too well that not every child in northern Uganda and surrounding areas has had the opportunities he’s had.

People suffered tremendously in many ways in this region of Africa, where war has raged for more than two decades — from 1986 to 2009, Okumu told the students.

“Even the world wars never took 23 years,” he said, adding that the devastating impact on the population remains.

“The people who suffered most were the noncombatants,” he noted.

Children were not safe from the threat of abduction by the Lord’s Resistance Army and being dragged into the conflict. So they walked miles at night, trying to elude their potential abductors.

“After sleeping in town, the following morning they would wake up and go to school without food,” said Okumu.

Okumu played a pivotal role in finally bringing peace to his country when, risking his own safety, he served as envoy of Ugandan President Yoweri Musevini in negotiations with LRA leader Joseph Kony.

The end of the conflict did not end the suffering, however, and many of the young people affected by the war were left unable to compete effectively on national tests that would have enabled them go to college.

Out of the need of those children, therefore, arose the idea for a school specifically for them, and an exchange with two Jesuit priests evolved into what is now the Ocer Campion Jesuit College.

Building a dream

Through Okumu’s efforts, a landowner agreed to donate his land — a treasured possession in Uganda — on the condition that it be used only for a school.

The doors opened in 2010 with 30 students, but the school has grown to 400 students, and is on its way to educating 1,000.

Okumu’s friend Dr. David Zamierowski — a physician who founded the Wound Care Centers of Kansas City and a lifelong Catholic — had spoken to students at Ward a day earlier about his own path in medicine and how to use the talents God gave them.

He introduced Okumu to the students and described how he got to know the parliamentarian — a man hailed as a local hero — when he went to Uganda to explore the potential for the school as a project for classmates at his alma mater to champion.

Zamierowski grew up in Wisconsin. He and classmates from the former Campion Jesuit High School there have taken on the cause of supporting the school in Gulu.

Two Campion alums — both Society of Jesus priests — are part of the team that manages the school.

The school’s name honors the Wisconsin school and also offers hope to this generation of youth through the word “Ocer” — native Acholi for “He is risen.”

“I want to remind everybody this was an open field three years ago,”said Zamierowski as pictures of classes, soccer games, test preparation, teachers and Mass filled with song and dance filled the screen.

Making connections

“You are international students,” Okumu told the students at Ward as he concluded his remarks, reminding them that what happens in one part of the world affects people in others.

And so he asked them to “link up with your fellow citizens in Ocer Campion Jesuit College.”

His message was well-received by Father Hermes.

“We are citizens of the world,” said Father Hermes, “and we have a great opportunity here to have a friendship, a relationship, with other students, other people in Uganda.”

By simply adjusting for the time difference, the Ward students will be able to connect with the English-speaking students thousands of miles away — and might even be able to visit them somewhere down the road, said Okumu.

Ward senior Danielle Lowe was taken with the prospect of being an international citizen — right from her high school in Wyandotte County — and wanted to help facilitate a connection between the two schools.

Not only will it offer new learning opportunities to students in Uganda, it will give students in Kansas City, Kan., new experiences.

“I definitely think it will open their eyes,” she said.

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