STILWELL — A lifetime of bad hygiene and intense poverty has taken a heavy toll on many of Father Simon Peter Kyambadde’s contemporaries.
Former classmates in his native Uganda are missing teeth, lacking education, and even facing the threat of early death.
Those stories could have easily been his, too.
But he received a chance many didn’t — to study for the priesthood in America at Mundelein Seminary near Chicago — because someone believed in him, he said.
Today he serves in the Diocese of Kiyinda-Mityana in Uganda and dedicates his life to giving people in his community their own chance at a better life, largely through education.
And he continues to find people who not only believe in him, but join him in his charge to improve lives through real change.
He returns to the United States, where he has many contacts from his seminary days in the Kansas and Illinois areas, and visits parishes seeking mission support.
From the moment they first met Father Kyambadde in 2006, the Feder family of Stilwell counted themselves among his supporters.
But the parishioners of St. Michael the Archangel Parish in Leawood had no idea how their own lives would change when — at the request of then-pastor Father Bill Porter — they invited the visiting priest from Uganda over for a meal after Mass.
Dr. Mike and Joyce Feder had been looking for some new ways to be of service to others: Their three kids — although still young and in school — were growing more independent by the day.
But it was actually the kids — Jon, Annelise and Emily — who got the ball rolling.
Father Kyambadde captured the children’s attention in the family’s backyard with stories of the realities of life in Uganda and his dream of opening a school.
“I just remember being amazed by his story,” said Annelise, who was in grade school at the time, but is now a junior at St. Louis University, studying theology, Spanish and public health.
“We just wanted to help him,” she said. “We just wanted to be a part of it.”
The kids were as good as their word when, in 2008, St. Joan of Arc Day and Boarding School in the village of Mawuuki opened with 267 students.
With help from their neighbors, the Feders sponsored a huge garage sale, with everything they made going straight to the school. The profits helped pay for the solar power that runs the school — and that first garage sale was only the beginning.
From it sprang something bigger than they ever imagined — an international organization called Gotta Have HOPE.
On the heels of their first garage sale, the Feders were already excited about planning the next.
They kept in contact with Father Kyambadde through email, and soon their pastor had an even bigger idea for them.
“Father Bill encouraged us to go over and take a look,” said Joyce.
And so, in November of 2008, Mike and Joyce flew to Uganda to see for themselves how support from the Heartland was helping.
“I didn’t believe they were going to come,” admitted Father Kyambadde. “That was exciting.”
The schoolchildren at St. Joan of Arc immediately captured the couple’s hearts.
“I remember a little girl was tugging on Mike’s shirt and saying, ‘Dr. Feder, thank you for our solar system!’” remembered Joyce.
Mike, a longtime leader in emergency medicine in the Kansas City area, and Joyce, who is also in the medical field, toured the school, the diocese and area medical clinics.
Mike was shocked.
“They were trying to treat malaria without any medication, just treating the symptoms,” said Joyce.
Health workers boiled their instruments over the fire.
Babies were born in these conditions.
A nun turned to him and said, “Dr. Michael, you have to help us.”
“I will,” he told her, and medical access and improvements immediately became part of their mission.
During visits, he spent long hours caring for people who lined up to see a doctor — some for perhaps the first time.
“We have never experienced abject poverty like that,” said Joyce. “So when we came home and we really showed the pictures to our family and our friends, they were all the more dedicated.”
The second garage sale in 2009 added more solar power capabilities to the school, and subsequent sales have addressed critical water needs and launched other major projects. The growing school today serves more than 600 children of all faiths.
About three years in, and with the garage sales proving to be enormously successful, the Feders heeded friends’ advice and applied for designation as a nonprofit corporation.
“This is not just a Feder thing,” emphasized Joyce, adding that hundreds of people have — from the very beginning — poured their hearts into the cause.
The outreach had already branched out in so many ways — to include schooling, medical needs, access to clean water, and more — that the family struggled to aptly name the new organization.
“We were trying to figure out a way that we could, with a little bit of everything, help people help themselves — help them be the best they can be,” said Joyce.
Finally, niece Katie Weimer hit the nail on the head while talking to a discouraged Joyce during a group Skype meeting.
“Aunt Joyce, you’ve gotta have hope,” she said.
“One of the kids goes, ‘That’s it!’” said Joyce.
“HOPE” encompasses the entire mission, standing for Healthcare, Opportunity, Potential, and Education.
And on April 26, 2011, Gotta Have HOPE’s designation as a nonprofit arrived in the Feders’ mailbox.
‘Just doing the Lord’s work’
The exciting news couldn’t have come at a better time, because the Feder family was facing a new struggle of its own.
Mike had been diagnosed with brain cancer.
Suddenly, the doctor who had dedicated his life to healing others and improving lives through Gotta Have HOPE — often saying he was “just doing the Lord’s work” — found himself on the receiving end of well-wishes from around the world.
As Mike underwent chemotherapy, the family and countless supporters continued their work for the people in Uganda.
In 2012, Mike was feeling well enough for the family to now make a dream of his come true.
Right after wrapping up the annual garage sale, the profits from which would help purchase a 60-seat bus for the school, they all flew off to visit Uganda.
Although he and Joyce had traveled there before, the children had yet to experience it.
“He wanted to be a part of it, and be there for them and with them, because it was so near and dear to his heart,” said Joyce.
The trip was everything he dreamed it would be.
“It was heaven on earth,” said Joyce.
The schoolchildren were ecstatic about the many books the family had brought for them.
“They’d read a page and pass it,” said Emily, who graduated in May from St. James Academy in Lenexa and will study nursing at St. Louis University. “It was the cutest thing I’ve seen. They were so excited about it.”
“Literally, I witnessed glee,” agreed Joyce.
Another particularly evocative experience was attending Mass — in the traditional garb Father Kyambadde’s family had dressed them in.
A lot of people go to Mass expecting to get something out of it, said Annelise. But this demonstrated to her, instead, a new level of excitement and participation that can be put into it.
“I think the point is to give thanks to our God, to praise — and that put a whole new spin on it,” she said.
A lasting legacy
The homecoming was bittersweet.
Mike’s cancer had returned.
As in love as they’d ever been, he and Joyce still prayed the rosary together every day.
“Mike would say, ‘Joyce, don’t worry — I’ll be your greatest intercessor in this,’” she said.
Dr. Mike Feder died in November 2012. But his legacy remains an important part of Gotta Have HOPE.
Joyce and the kids are key parts of the team heading the effort — Joyce is president of Gotta Have HOPE — but their partners in this work are now legion. And Mike’s influence is felt always, and part of that is his strong commitment to education.
Jon will start teaching this fall at Arrupe Jesuit High School in Denver, for example, as part of the Jesuit Alumni Service Corps.
The Feder family returned to Uganda for two weeks this past June. When they got back home, they launched immediately into preparations for this year’s annual garage sale. It turned out to be the biggest and best yet, netting more than $43,000 that will go toward a library for the Ugandan schoolkids.
HOPE for the future
From an infusion of technology (through the help of Feder nephew Joe Gaudutis) to a new library to an orchard that will soon bear fruit, Father Kyambadde’s dreams have only gotten bigger since he first met the Feder family.
He would eventually like to open a high school, for example.
It all comes down to having people who believe in a cause, he said, to truly make a difference.
“Someone believed in me, and this is where I really appreciate Joyce and Mike,” said Father Kyambadde. “They believed in what I was doing.
They have actually visited many times.
“And most amazing?
“They brought the children.”
How to help
From the annual garage sale (Gotta Have HOPE’s largest fundraiser) to the “Hope CAN Help” recycling initiative (which funds medication for students at St. Joan of Arc Day and Boarding School in Uganda) to corresponding with the young students to providing technology and medical supplies, there are many ways to help support Gotta Have HOPE.
The nonprofit organization got its start and has its international headquarters in Stilwell.
Prayers are also always appreciated.
To learn more about making a donation or helping in another way, visit the website at: www.gottahavehope.org; send an email to: email@example.com; or call (913) 226-6958.