Friday, April 13, 2012

I've moved!

Please view my new webpage at

Respect your Mama: Underground dance parties celebrate full moon, nature

D.J. Trip Coffin, center, of Denver, plays music for the crowd gathered in the mountains for the Full Moon Party as Jefe, left, of Boulder, looks on. Photo by Patrick Kelley

Published 8/8/2004

Somewhere southwest of Boulder, July 31: You have to really want to go to get there.

First, you have to know the right people to get the directions. About an hour and 15 minutes southwest of Boulder, the e-mail says. It takes more like two hours.

The road isn't a road. It's a washboard, tilted 45 degrees to the side, crossing two small creeks. The evergreens leap back from the path, shocked by the headlights creeping through the blackness. You're sure you're lost now.

Ten miles off the highway, you hear it. The air pulsates, like Jurassic Park, growing louder. A red VW bug parked on the right looks hilariously out of place. How did it cross the creeks?

Over the next ridge, an 8-foot-tall bonfire climbs from a clearing. About 250 silhouettes bounce in the glow to electronic music. The fat, full moon is their disco ball. The fire runs the fog machine.
At first glance, it's a rave. There's a DJ, spinning techno by torch light. A few dancers clutch glow sticks and key-chain lasers. A teenage boy rubs Vicks VapoRub on his girlfriend's shoulders, boosting her obvious high.

But look closer. Instead of pigtails and pacifiers, most people are wearing jeans and flannels. Black labs and German shepherds snake through the crowd. The dancers are 10 years older than stereotypical ravers. They're unpacking camping gear and popping up tents, grilling veggie burgers and warming water for hot chocolate.

They say they're here to celebrate Mother Nature. There's something spiritual about watching the full moon waltz across the sky to a tribal beat, they say.
"Dancing with people is the most essential thing about being a human, " says Scott Everett, 30, of Boulder.
"We're living through something our ancestors hundreds of years ago were doing."

It's techno, Boulder style.

Keeping it clean

Every full moon during the past eight summers, DJs from Boulder-based Mother Earth Sound System have packed speakers, amps, a 150-pound generator and boxes of records into vans and headed west, usually to private Boulder County land nowhere near civilization.
The parties, or "renegades, " are always free, underground and run from sunset to sunrise. The original parties drew about 50 people. They now top out at 500. Other DJs across the state also hold invite-only outdoor parties, but full-moon nights belong to Mother Earth.

Unlike a rave -- a word that became pass in the dance community a few years ago -- full-moon parties have no flashy lights or lasers. In a sort of hippie-utopian twist, everyone helps set up and clean up. (Note Mother Earth Sound System's fitting mantra: "Respect your Mama.") All equipment is donated.

"Raves are meant to entertain. You don't participate, like you do here, " says Everett, holding -- no joke -- a root beer. He's getting ready to spin. Everett, one of Mother Earth's five core DJs, has the electronic DJ look: super-short hair and small round glasses. He's always grinning.

"We try to take a few other things out of the normal equation, " he says -- mainly drugs and alcohol. He says if he sees people openly using or selling drugs, they're out of here.
Of course, it's no church party. The VapoRub kids sit oblivious on a log by the fire. But whatever they took, they did it in private, deep under a cluster of aspen trees or inside a dark tent. No one is openly popping pills. Only a handful of people are drinking wine and beer. Kegs and nitrous oxide tanks aren't allowed.

Everett says organizers want to form a community with "no distractions, only each other and the moon." That's why the location is so remote and stripped of special effects. He considers excessive drugs and booze another distraction.
'It's about the music'
It's obvious that Erik McIntyre, 17, of Boulder feels he's being misunderstood: He keeps repeating, "It's not about the drugs. It's about the music." He keeps dancing and adds, "That's what people need to know so they'll leave us alone."

The Fairview High School student is one of the youngest faces around the bonfire. He, too, has small round glasses and short, spiky hair. His eyebrow and lip are pierced.

Maybe 10 miles down the rocky path toward Bailey and Interstate 70, a patrol car idles. The officer says he noticed an unusual number of cars turning onto the remote road. He hovers near the junction for a few minutes but decides against making the trek himself.

Busting a big party can consume an entire night, says Boulder County sheriff's Deputy Jeffrey Caton. Caton broke up Mother Earth's full moon party in June. The party didn't violate the noise ordinance, which bans amplified music near other camp sites (full-moon parties are isolated enough to avoid that). Caton wrote several underage drinking tickets.

"The problem the sheriff`s office has is when that many people get together, usually there`s drugs, alcohol and there`s a big problem with underage drinking, " Caton says. "They say they can control the people up there, but once you get over 75 to 100 people, there`s no way you can watch everybody."

Police shut down about 10 percent of full-moon parties, says DJ Trip Coffin, 30, of Denver.

"Unfortunately, we`ve been lumped in with other people who throw parties in the same spot, " he says. And, as in Caton`s police report, authorities call any party with techno music a "rave." This comes complete with the negative stereotypes, Coffin says.

Still, "renegaders" say it wouldn`t be the same without electronic music. Kate Lesta, 21, of Boulder stands under a white tent warming her hands on a cup of hot chocolate.

"Why techno? It`s life; it emulates a heartbeat, " she says, her green eyes glowing next to her blue hair. "This music is so raw. It shakes you up. ... It goes beyond our very boring society that is very degrading to the human spirit in a tribal sense."

Lesta says she`s not on drugs. And alcohol makes it too hard to stay up until 7:30 a.m. She says she`ll rely on herbal tea to take her through the night.

"I`ll sleep when I die, " she says.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Oasis of Hope: Part 3

Published 3/20/2007

Nurturing water of life
Colorado Haiti project works to clean drinking sources

By Aimee Heckel
Camera Staff Writer

EDITOR'S NOTE: In a country with staggeringly low literacy rates, most education in Haiti is in the form of oral recitation. And in a country with poverty and pain far deeper than human comprehension, Haitians often talk in parables. Storytelling is the country's heartbeat. This three-day series, which started on Sunday and concludes today, tells three modern-day parables of a group of Boulderites and their attempts to help save a country that, at times, seems 200 years beyond redemption. This is the tale of the Colorado Haiti Project.

This is where the river starts.

Sharp raindrops boom from the Haitian sky like buckshot. They splatter mud as they plunge into the guts of the island, about an hour and a half by plane south of Florida.

Amid the mess, Dr. Warren Berggren, of Golden, looks superimposed. His blue button-down is spotless and wrinkle-free. He smiles.

The St. Paul's Mission site, six hours south of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, heaves under the mud. The trees wrinkle from so much water.

The moisture enlists the air forces, malaria-laced mosquitoes, just one of the area's many health threats. The bugs kamikaze against the screens of the rectory porch, where Berggren sits in darkness, camouflaged between silhouettes of the other three Colorado Haiti Project volunteers. It's dinnertime.

Berggren, 76, balances on a wooden chair with lopsided legs. He watches the water war from the safety of the porch. He smiles as the skies reload their artillery with a click of lightning. He smiles, because he knows the earth wants to lose this battle. Haiti's soil is parched. It stretches out its arms and welcomes the blows, which will drip down the tree-starved mountains and join the Bakonwa Spring, the source of life.

The mid-February tropical storm isn't the only fight in progress. The Boulder-based Colorado Haiti Project has its own: against the poverty that has kidnapped this proud nation, once considered the emerald of the Caribbean. Only poverty doesn't back down so easily.

The project has rallied more than 100 Coloradans, mostly Boulderites, who have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars over the past 20 years. In 2005, the capital fund reached $273,000, plus an additional $95,000 for programs and jobs for Haitians, including teachers and construction workers.

The strategy is risky - never attempted before in Haiti by a nonprofit. But, as the volunteers see it, a big battle demands bigger guns. By the weight of their dream - to hoist up an entire community to the bottom rung of poverty so the residents can begin climbing upward themselves - you wouldn't know the project operates on a tight budget out of the St. John's Episcopal Church in downtown Boulder.

The strategy centers around the St. Paul's Mission, near Petit Trou de Nippes, Haiti. Here, volunteers have constructed a sort of oasis of hope, complete with a school, church, guest house and rectory, standing for the goals of the project: education, spiritual growth and health care.
Berggren is rallying soldiers for the health-care front.

Don't be fooled by his thin frame or his age. Berggren has been training for this battle most of his life. He lived in Haiti for 15 years. He studied and taught at the Harvard School of Public Health. He's an expert in tropical public health. He can distinguish between the mosquitoes that carry diseases and the "harmless pests" as easily as if telling apart cats from dogs.

Berggren's immune system is iron, his mind is a switchblade and his heart is as sweet and easy to melt as ice cream.

He watches the rain and smiles, as if he knows something the others don't. Which, of course, is an understatement.

Berggren has a plan.

A poisonous spider the size of an apple crouches near the bed on the second floor of the St. Paul's guest house. On the first floor, Berggren'a wobbly voice echoes off the walls in a room that looks like a jail cell.

The area's top leaders listen from wooden benches, perched with perfect posture and hygiene, a reflection of the stubborn Haitian dignity still holding its breath in a deep well of suffering. The leaders and Berggren gather to determine the future of the Colorado Haiti Project.

Berggren and the other three Colorado volunteers are staying in the guest house. So are St. Paul's church assistants, teachers, cooks, maintenance workers, as well as some graduates of the school and some of their friends. Cement buildings this fancy are rare - it has electricity several hours each day - so the rooms are also used as classrooms or meeting halls.

In the same way that Berggren's immaculate clothes looked misplaced amid last night's rainstorm, St. Paul's Mission doesn't look like it belongs in Haiti.

Outside St. Paul's cactus-covered gate, a bus spins out stuck in the mud. Bodies dangle from the roof and back, absorbing the splattering mud and growing antsy with the likelihood of having to walk hours home through muck too thick for vehicles to forge.

Down the road, Frantz Torchen, 29, lives in a typical 120-square-foot, clay-floored hut with his wife, four children and 95-year-old grandmother. Torchen attended St. Paul's Elementary School, but dropped out in 1998 to try to find a job. He is still unemployed. Also typical. Seventy percent of the country has no work.

His house has space for one mattress and two chairs. And a nonfunctioning TV with a turn-dial. His house doesn't have electricity. The TV is a status symbol - a mark of pride - even covered in dust and blankets.

Torchen's wife, Katia, wakes at dawn to make spaghetti, which is breakfast and dinner. She walks two hours to and from the spring to fill jugs with water.

Thirty percent more women and girls than men fetch water for their families, the program says. The water loads are often startling. A donkey lugs 28 gallon jugs: 210 pounds. A woman balances seven jugs in a dishpan on her head: 53 pounds.

The Torchen dinner table is the joint grave of Torchen's parents. His family eats and hangs out on the stone caskets outside their hut. Life revolves around death.

Torchen's grandmother is blind, and her chest bones protrude where her dress hangs too low. She cries. She kisses a foreign face that hovers close to hers.

"You can have everything I own, " she tells the volunteers in French. But she doesn't own anything.

The Colorado Haiti Project started with medical missions. About two dozen Colorado doctors and assistants popped up portable clinics for one week a few times a year, offering free care for about 100 people a day. They set broken bones, treated abscesses and helped children who fell or rolled into open fires.

Haiti has no public hospitals, and nearly half of the country doesn't have basic health care. That's one reason the average life expectancy hovers around 50.

The country has the highest maternal death rate in the Western Hemisphere. The child mortality rate in Haiti is 13 times that of the United States.

A nurse at the primary school tells of the corpse of a 5-day-old infant brought in recently from the Grand Ravine area. A classic story of a child born healthy who began having chest spasms and trouble breathing. Now dead. The mother wasn't immunized against tetanus. Hardly anyone in Grand Ravine is. The nearest clinic is three arduous hours away. Vaccinating personnel rarely visit, and residents rarely leave.

The volunteers could have done medical trips forever, says Don Snyder, president of the project's board of directors, from Boulder. He didn't attend February's trip.

But, he says, the clinics were merely a Band-Aid.

"Why have a health clinic without fixing the water? Most patients you see drink bad water, " he says.

Students can't study if they're dying. They can't start a business without money. And they can't keep the momentum going without knowing how. The Colorado Haiti Project realized all pieces were interrelated. Their oasis was born.

Back in the guest house, Berggren unleashes the plan he's been grinning about all week.
A survey.

It's simple, but unprecedented in Petit Trou. It takes him two days to explain, plus a 45-minute debate over his suggestion that women conduct the survey. Residents argue women can't crawl around the hills like the men. Berggren laughs, remembering the dozens of times he clamored up the rocks using both hands while women glided past him, no hands, balancing tubs on their heads.

"The houses here don't have cornerstones, " Berggren says. "Women are often referred to as the center pole. You pull them out and the whole thing collapses."

So it's settled. Women will visit the hundreds of huts in the 19 villages St. Paul's serves and ask them questions to create a measuring point for the project's successes and needs. Berggren will stay at St. Paul's until they census is done, for weeks after the other volunteers go home.

He expects one problem to rise to the top: clean water.

Only a quarter of the people in rural areas have safe drinking water. More than a third of the deaths of all Haitian children stem from contaminated drinking water.

The Bakonwa Spring is more than five miles from St. Paul's Mission. Two boys stride with clunky white jugs as hands. They wear no pants and platforms of mud under their arches instead of shoes. They should be in school. Instead. the boys hurry past mules and shaggy goats. They pass a man sitting at an empty desk in the middle of the road. That's the bank.

As they draw closer to the spring, the trees look like they're blooming with tattered clothes, hung out to dry. The shores are colored with blankets, buckets and residents, mostly women and girls. Thousands of jugs are filled here daily. The spring is the hub the community, as a hang-out, as well as the only source of water.

The jugs bubble and groan as the boys hold them under water to fill them. Upstream, a man washes mud off his donkey, and the animal defecates in the stream. Naked children bathe and leap from limestone ledges. Women wash clothes. The two boys gulp from their jugs before sealing them. The water is dysentery or hepatitis A waiting to happen.

The Colorado Haiti Project hopes to some day run a waterline to St. Paul's. It'd cost about a quarter of a million dollars. But first, the Haitians they hired need to finish building the school. Later this year, the project will begin offering micro-loans so residents can start businesses and stimulate the economy. About 65 percent of the Haitian economy comes from international aid. The average Haitian lives on the equivalent of less than $1 a day.

There's also the leaky ceiling in the guest house. The grading on the school building that leaves puddles of standing water; mosquitoes love that. The cook needs to keep the chickens and dogs out of the kitchen. Maybe the project will add health-education programs.

What happens now depends on the survey. If the thrust comes from the locals, they'll be more invested, Berggren says. Hopefully that will equal sustainability.

The Colorado Haiti Project is constantly changing, but it's always moving in the same direction. Like a river.

It starts in lofty mountain shelves, sometimes with the bang of thunder, other times with a drizzle of water squeezed from the ground - a grassroots organization, like this one.

Boulderite and longtime Colorado Haiti Project volunteer Pat Laudisio spends the rest of the afternoon on the bank, watching the children work and splash. A Bible verse, Amos 5:24, is lodged in her mind: "Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream."

"We live in an unjust world and extreme poverty is one of the results, " Laudisio says. "We are all part of one creation and we are all co-creators. ... In the struggle to survive, the people of Haiti reveal life, with all its richness and pain, and within their souls - and ours - the same God lives."

Water gives life, she says, and everyone, including the Haitian community, has a responsibility to keep the water clean and flowing freely.

If left alone, the river Laudisio watches is deadly.

As she sees it, this is where the river of life starts.
Or ends.

Contact Camera Staff Writer Aimee Heckel at (303) 473-1359 or

Oasis of Hope: Part 2

Published 3/19/2007

Spiritual solution
Colorado Haiti Project takes comprehensive approach to fighting poverty

By Aimee Heckel
Camera Staff Writer

EDITOR'S NOTE: In a country with staggeringly low literacy rates, most education in Haiti is in the form of oral recitation. And in a country with poverty and pain far deeper than human comprehension, Haitians often talk in parables. Storytelling is the country's heartbeat. This three-day series, which started Sunday and concludes Tuesday, tells three modern-day parables of a group of Boulderites and their attempts to help save a country that, at times, seems 200 years beyond redemption. This is the tale of the Colorado Haiti Project.

Pat Laudisio isn't there when the voodoo prince selects the goat for sacrifice.
She can't see its eyeballs bulge when the machete blade sings across the rocks as it's sharpened.

Laudisio doesn't see how the voodoo priestess's fingertips curl seductively through the acrid humidity, or how the priestess's fat stomach quivers with her chants and the throbbing drumbeats.

But if Laudisio squinted just right, she could see the smoke oozing through the trees about five miles away, and she would know.

Laudisio, whose family is well-known in Boulder as high-profile restaurateurs, knows about voodoo. She's been to Haiti a dozen times. She was the first executive director of the Boulder-based Colorado Haiti Project, from 1999 to 2004.

Over the past 18 years, the nonprofit built the St. Paul's Mission near Petit Trou de Nippes, Haiti. The mission includes a school, church, guest house and rectory, symbolizing the project's comprehensive approach that spans education, spiritual growth and health care.

The approach is unprecedented in battling Haiti's poverty. Most nonprofits focus on one area, such as medical care. But this project has created a tiny oasis of hope along Haiti's rocky road of decay. It's a holistic model volunteers dream can be replicated a million times throughout Haiti, since that's what would be needed to truly breathe new life into this country. But a cluster of cement buildings is all the project can do. For now.

The plan orbits around a church: a community gathering point. God's presence. The fuel for superhuman strength - since that's also what is needed to breathe new life here. This spiritual support is Laudisio's focus. She is in Haiti mid-February with three other Boulderites, including her husband, Antonio Laudisio.

Voodoo seems to be the only thing Haiti has in abundance. That, and desperation.

The country, just an hour and a half by plane from the United States, feels medieval, lacking clean water, a sewage system, jobs, schools - even soil rich enough to grow food. Haiti is the third-poorest nation on the globe.

Some say to compare the poorest conditions of Africa to Haiti is like comparing prison to death. Haiti has virtually no tourism due to its destitution and lack of even a Third World infrastructure. Visitors mostly come to help, and residents would risk life to escape to become a Miami vagrant, a much cushier lifestyle.

St. Paul's feels misplaced, blooming with new construction and optimism. Its church is the second-largest Episcopal church in the nation, even though it is six hours away on a roller-coaster mud road south of the capital, Port-au-Prince.

The plot lay naked when the first volunteers visited in 1989. The land blended in with the rest of the Petit Trou oblivion, without even a water well.

Pat Laudisio is a deacon from the St. John's Episcopal Church in Boulder. She prefers to respect the voodoo ceremony from a distance. The smoke coils around a metal prong plunged into the flames, before it exhales into the sky looking like the spirits it's supposed to summon.
Maybe it's summoning the spirits of the living, too, a reminder to look beyond the disease-infested bugs biting at their ankles and toward a faith that could carry them.

Laudisio isn't looking at the voodoo smoke.

She has her own ceremony to run.

It's hot. Beyond hot. The air feels like fire, accentuated by the haze of incense that the priest shakes from a brass ball on a chain, the thurible. More smoke.

It's Sunday morning inside a sweltering furnace called the St. Paul's Episcopal Church. People walked miles. Some joke they come to service just to plug in their cell phones, even though most phones don't work. Locals carry the black boxes as a status symbol, much like Americans and their Starbucks cups. The church has power from a generator that works most of the time. Nests of power cords coil around the already overburdened electrical outlets.

But truthfully, the residents' dignified hairdos and attentiveness - despite the heat - indicate that this weekly ritual is a place to recharge more than just phones.

The children, dressed in matching school uniforms, gawk at the visitors, gently and curiously, but look down when noticed. Maybe they know their destiny is already decided, being born in the wrong latitude. Maybe they're being polite. Mosquitoes also came to church this morning. They came for their feast.

Father Kesner Gracia explodes at the podium, preaching in Haitian Creole. Kesner, the archdeacon of this region, oversees 35 churches and is the Haitian head of the Colorado Haiti Project.

Ninety percent of Haiti is Catholic. The remainder are Episcopalian. Locals say 100 percent are "voodoo."

Kesner, 33, is well-built, but he strains to hold up his shoulders under a heavy green robe. More people pack in. Capacity is 500. Standing room only. More mosquitoes and waves of humidity follow them. Kesner's volume increases with the growing audience.

Down the road, the villages look like they are
rotting. Flaking pink and green doors pop from buildings made from hunks of lumber and tin. They're half built, or maybe half deteriorated.
The name Haiti stems from the "land of mountains." Hills that were once lush are now stripped of green, the trees plucked out for charcoal mining, one of the few economies that is still lucrative. Clear-cutting led to erosion. The raped mountains now gradually slip into the bay.

Anyone who's been here can hardly dispute that Haiti is at the bottom. The quality of life cannot get worse. The only step down is death itself.

Miles and miles of the same: processions of anguished faces pushing forward, selling anything they can think of: sugarcane sticks, broken TVs, bread soggy from the dirty rain. One man simultaneously sells windshield wipers and cell phone chargers. For a country without money to buy cars or functioning cell phones, his commodities are baffling. But there's a spark of energy. Haiti is abundant with persistence, despite meager returns.

Back in church, it's Laudisio's turn.

She speaks slowly to the congregation in English: "When I see your eyes and hear your singing and see you all moving together, I know you have a lesson to teach all of the world: The grace and love of God, for he is truly present here."

There's something else Laudisio wants all of the world to learn. She believes if there's no hope for Haiti, there's no hope for the rest of us.

"The problems that exist in Haiti exist in all parts of the world today, " she says. "Haiti is running out of time and space and resources, and if we don't pay attention to the causes of the poverty in Haiti, ultimately it will continue to grow in the rest of the world."

Of course, if Laudisio is right, the flip side must be true: If there's hope for any of us, there must be hope for the least of us. The ghettos scream in defiance of that, but there must be hope for Haiti.

The church drums crescendo. Twelve young girls float down the aisle. Their callused feet caress the cement in time, slowly and softly enough to not disrupt the plastic baskets of hibiscus blooms, eggs and coconuts tottering on their heads. Step left. Step right. Slowly spin. They offer the baskets to the altar, as carefully as if laying down a sleeping infant.

They cannot give money, but they offer what they have.

It's the Haitian proverb: "If you have nothing to give, give a piece of your heart."

So different from a decade ago, when missionaries tossed balloons and candy from their moving vehicles at the Haitian children, like a pity parade. They thought they were helping, but the random giving stirred a sense of dependency and emptiness.

The Colorado Haiti Project now expects the residents to reciprocate, whether it's voting on the next venture or keeping the grounds clean. The nonprofit's goal is to some day not be needed. Laudisio thinks the girls' offering dance mirrors a shift in perspective.

"There is a joy in understanding that they can be full participants in a growing community. They can make their own contribution that comes from their singing, their movement, their dancing together, " Laudisio says. "It's empowering to give something."

Even when the gift isn't something tangible, she says. Especially then.

And it's true for the American volunteers, too, although that's tricky to remember coming from a material nation, where the price of a few pairs of running shoes could feed and educate a Haitian child for a year.

Just this morning, another Boulderite, Leslie Sosnowski, said she wished she brought 650 suckers or bouncy balls, one for every child in the school. But she didn't.

She saw a boy standing alone near the water collection tank. He motioned, palms up and pleading. His hollow cheeks and eyes said he was dying. Sosnowski had a few Power Bars left. She could have slipped him one. It was tempting. She went back and forth, tortured by the tension between her big heart and the impossibility to help every child she saw. She knew if she gave this boy something, she was excluding 649 others.

Instead, she shared with him a smile, a commodity that she hoped would be contagious and have a longer shelf life.

The dimension of redevelopment that resonates deeper than the physical is easy to miss, Laudisio says. But the church building without the community inside is just another forsaken shell on the road.

The spirit of a nonprofit is the small, still voice inside, she says. Beyond a particular religion, Laudisio says a community of faith unites people through common values, the spirit that ignites when people focus on something beyond themselves.

This spirit is like the smoke, whether at a voodoo ceremony or an Episcopal church, that crawls from the altar into the air and slides into our lungs. It's inside us, even if we can't feel it.

"I believe that God exists within each human person and every living part of this creation and that we are drawn toward one another because God calls God's self, " Laudisio says. "Sometimes that call becomes more intense through people who are experiencing suffering ... and we respond to it, and it is a light and a depth and a wisdom and a joy."

The spirit pushes the Haitian merchant's bare feet one in front of the other as he waves windshield wipers and cell phone chargers, hoping to score a sale.

It's what draws Pat Laudisio back to Haiti year after year, even when the magnitude of the project seems heavier than a mountain.

It is the answer "how."

"We are larger than our little selves, " Laudisio says. "Love exists. That's the way we will survive."

Church adjourned.

Coming Tuesday: Addressing the health of Haiti.
Contact Camera Staff Writer Aimee Heckel at (303) 473-1359 or

Oasis of Hope: Part 1

An island of stability
Colorado Haiti Project helps bring haven of hope to poverty-stricken Caribbean nation

By Aimee Heckel
Camera Staff Writer
Photos by Jennie March-Aleu

EDITOR'S NOTE: In a country with staggeringly low literacy rates, most education in Haiti is in the form of oral recitation. And in a country with poverty and pain far deeper than human comprehension, Haitians often talk in parables. Storytelling is the country's heartbeat. This three-day series, which starts today, tells three modern-day parables of a group of Boulderites and their attempts to help save a country that, at times, seems 200 years beyond redemption.
This is the tale of the Colorado Haiti Project.

Leslie Sosnowski is done with fear.

At least that's what the letter says. She reads it to the sounds of the growling airplane engine as it carries her to Haiti, the poorest nation in the western hemisphere. She reads it there, in the darkness of night when she can't sleep after
she swears something crawled across her neck. She reads it when she wants to scream.

The loopy handwriting of her 10-year-old daughter, Sara, strings together the pieces of Sosnowski's heart every time she sees a Haitian child lugging water instead of studying, and every time she silently wishes she was home and comfortable in Boulder.

Before leaving for Haiti on Feb. 16, the 50-year-old full-time mom thought she'd prepared for the end of the world - and, in a way, that's what she would find during her week in Haiti. She packed a fan, face creams and a yoga mat. Yet the one thing she didn't pack herself, something her daughter had scrawled in Sosnowski's journal the night before, was everything she needed.
Sosnowski carries another note from her daughter, too. But it's sealed in an envelope and not addressed to her. Sosnowski doesn't know what it will say.

Sosnowski sits on the cool cement outside a classroom at St. Paul's Mission. This is Colorado Haiti Project territory: A tiny oasis of hope wedged between poverty in every direction. Four buildings, a school, church, a guest house and rectory, represent nearly 20 years of fundraising and construction.

The stillness here is jarring, surrounded by chaos. In this country, mothers swathe their infants in plastic bags so they can place them on the sewage-smothered ground while they cook and try to clean their huts. In the finest straw homes beyond St. Paul's, residents alternate sleeping on their one mattress in one- or two-hour shifts, hoping not to be joined by malaria-laden mosquitoes.

Sosnowski thinks the half-built school looks like a prison.

But it looks like freedom to the Haitians.

But this is not a story about buildings. It is about rebuilding. It's what happens inside the buildings.

And inside, St. Paul's buildings bring education, spiritual support, medical care - a pyramid of rebirth for a nation that appears, by all standards, long dead and decayed. The island floats just an hour and a half by plane from Florida, but it's 200 years behind. Eighty percent of the country lives in abject poverty.

Haiti's problems are complex, tangled in a history of slavery and political instability. The lack of solid government has resulted in near anarchy. So most nonprofits take on one task, such as running a school or offering free medical care.

But the Colorado Haiti Project is trying a comprehensive approach for this one village, near Petit Trou de Nippes, 80 miles south of Port-au-Prince, the capital. The Boulder group is the only nonprofit ever to attempt such a vast reincarnation for Haiti, even on a small scale. As they see it, all aspects of what they are working on - education, medicine and spirituality - weave together.

The humidity sneaks through the barred windows at St. Paul's School. The air is so heavy that it steals Sosnowski's breath. Or maybe the entire island leaves her breathless, because it's desolate enough to take anything it can get.

By American standards, St. Paul's grounds look blighted.

The cooks shoo chickens out of the kitchen. Rice and beans are cooked in an outdoor cauldron over a fire. The showers entail a pipe sticking out of the wall, a knob, the force of gravity and a water tank on the roof.

Sosnowski is one of four Boulderites on February's mission trip, designed to check on the program, assess community need and help determine direction. Sosnowski runs the scholarship program to help the children get an education, since Haiti has no free schools.

But really, Sosnowski's trip can be defined by two letters.

She hopes if she reads Sara's letter to her enough times, it will become true:

"Mom, you are done with fear. ... You will learn a lesson, and be the best."

Sosnowski decides now she must be done with fear, now that she's seat-belted in Father Kesner Gracia's Nissan. She locks the doors. Extra safe for the ride through the city.

The car stands between her and a city that looks like a disaster zone that forgot to wear its yellow "Police line: Do not cross" banner. It's alive, a city that does not breathe, but pants.

Every turn is punctuated by mountains of trash, open sewers, desperation and sporadic but proud political graffiti marking the 1-year anniversary of one of the country's first democratically elected presidents.

Beyond Sosnowski's windows, people burst with every gesture. The echoes of their words reverberate in a hollow hum from tin roof to tin roof.
Sosnowski jumps. A weathered hand slaps her window. It's connected to an old woman, who loses footing as she wades through the crowd and crunches across glass and wrappers that float through the streets like fall leaves back in Boulder. The old woman balances a rusty metal tub of bananas on her head. The threads that cling to her bones clash with her poise and her noble jaw. Her eyes hit Sosnowski's. She looks away first, too quickly to see the woman's glare melt into a toothless smile. The pride of Haiti.

Sosnowski is not done with fear.

Sosnowski wonders if the car is symbolic of her life in Boulder: a false sense of security through physical separation. Just one rock or flat tire away from havoc.

One week earlier, the United Nations sent in extra forces to Port-au-Prince. Kidnappings for ransom are common. One teen was recently kidnapped and murdered, her eyeballs gouged out.
"They say that Haiti has collapsed, " Sosnowski says. "It has."

Ten-year-old Sara wants to go to Haiti this summer. The youth group from St. John's Episcopal Church in Boulder wants to build a playground here. Sara signed up.

Sosnowski isn't sure her girl can handle it.

Sara carries a photo of her 5-year-old Haitian pen pal, Rosemie Fleory, and shows it to her friends at the Boulder Country Day School. Sara's enthusiasm inspires others to sponsor Haitian students. Before Sosnowski left, her daughter watched the Colorado Haiti Project's documentary on repeat.

"The level of poverty she sees in 'Haiti Calls' either doesn't register with her - or deter her, " her mom says. "I think she hears Haiti calling in her heart."

So does Sosnowski.

Well, she hears something. Only right now, it's muddled in fear and the swirl crinkling paper and voices. Sosnowski perches on a splintered bench outside St. Paul's Women's Resource Center.

The center opened in the fall with 60 students, young women eager to improve their cooking and sewing, and hopefully, their lives. This fall, the center will offer them business classes and micro-loans to start their own shops.

Sosnowski's white skin glows in a crowd of Haitian children, like the Haitian's white teeth glow against their lips. The children hover over pages from a coloring book that Sosnowski packed, stroking the pictures with markers as carefully as if they're performing surgery. Any kind of education is their life support. Fewer than half of the nation is literate.

Education will help bring the nation back to life, Sosnowski says.

More than half of the country's population is younger than 20. Of these 4 million youth, fewer than half attend school.

But around St. Paul's, 88 percent of girls and 85 percent of boys are enrolled in school, a survey found. In 2005, the Haitian government recognized the St. Paul's School as one of the best primary schools in the nation based on its exam scores. Then, the school had no classrooms.
Classes were held under trees or in corners of the church.

St. Paul's School is out this week for Mardi Gras, but children still buzz around the classrooms. The school provides more than 600 children lunch - sometimes their only meal. A quarter of Haitian children suffer from chronic malnutrition.

Look, there's Rosemie.

Sosnowski told Sara she could sponsor the Haitian girl if Sara worked to earn the $300 it would cost annually. Sara's household chores put Rosemie through school, buy books and a uniform and provide her with lunch. When Sara doesn't want to clean her room, Sosnowski reminds her of Rosemie.

It always works.

Sosnowski snatches up Rosemie's envelope and crackles across the white gravel. The child stands barefoot, awkward and tiny in the courtyard. Rosemie's face is empty. She wears her gingham uniform with her name sloppily sewn on the pinafore.

The crowd slides back as Sosnowski passes, her steps narrow and abrupt under her long khaki skirt. Bodies turn to watch, like sunflowers craning their hungry faces toward the sun.
Today, Rosemie is the sun. Or better. Rosemie is a movie star getting her first Oscar.
Sosnowski hears the engine of the Nissan choking closer toward the mission site. It's time to go to the village. Her exchange is quick. Anticlimactic, even.

Like the school facility from the outside, it seems simple. But look closely; this is about what happens inside.

First, Sosnowski translates Sara's letter into French: "Rosemie, your eyes twinkle with pride. Your smile is as pretty as the sky."

Then it happens. Rosemie's eyes twinkle. Her cheeks stretch toward the clouds.

The Nissan rumbles up next to Sosnowski. The other volunteers beckon to her through the glass. She's standing on the outside, separate, and for the first time since she landed, she can hear the calling that drew her to Haiti.

It's unsettling and transforming. It is beauty borne of chaos, not just for this country, but inside her. It's the love underneath Sosnowski's fear. Sosnowski is done with fear.

Chelsea will love it here.

Sosnowski waits a minute before climbing in the car, savoring one moment more of the incongruent anxiety.

Coming Monday: Building community support through spiritual involvement.
Contact Camera Staff Writer Aimee Heckel at (303) 473-1359 or

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Dream Deferred, Part 3

Hope for tomorrow

Story and photos by Aimee Heckel

Publication: Daily Camera
Publication date: 9/5/2006

Editor`s note: Fairview High School graduate Eric Glustrom established the Boulder-based nonprofit organization, Educate, to help fund the education of students in Uganda. In June, Camera Staff Writer Aimee Heckel traveled to Africa with Glustrom and his fellow college student volunteers to recruit African refugees and orphans to sponsor through school and to check on current scholarship recipients - students helping students change the world. Heckel`s series began Sunday and concludes today. See the whole series at

UGANDA - The lean, dark bodies wait for Eric Glustrom at the gate, hours before the echo of drums and chants awake him.

The bodies follow the 21-year-old Boulder man home every night and watch him vanish into his concrete cell of a room at St. Patrick`s Catholic parish in Uganda, where he and the other volunteers for his Boulder-based nonprofit group, Educate, are staying.

The bodies stand there when the sun sets, which happens almost instantly on the equator, like the flip of a light switch. They`re there when the sun rises.

Maybe they never go home.

The six volunteers, students at Amherst College in Massachusetts, are visiting the Kyangwali Refugee Camp in western Uganda to choose refugees for five scholarships. Educate`s dozen student-run clubs across the United States have already put more than 40 refugees through school, with hopes that the educated Africans will someday help rebuild their war-ravaged homelands.

The movement started with Glustrom when he was a 17-year-old at Fairview High in Boulder. He`s now a senior studying neuroscience at Amherst.

Five scholarships. Hundreds of applicants.

And whatever story they tell, the answer is the same: Send an e-mail to Eric. He`ll provide the application details. Good luck.

A 13-year-old African girl is so malnourished she looks 8.

A 15-year-old girl will be forced into marriage if she can`t pay her school fees.

A 60-year-old man wants to finish primary school.

"I don`t want to be ignorant the rest of my life, " he says.

A confused man submits an application to driving school. Another man with no teeth pleads to be connected with the pope so he can become a priest.

In 1997, Armani Jean-Paul, 23, was a teenager, fleeing the bloody civil war in what is now known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo when he saw a newborn lying abandoned in the field. He picked her up and carried her with him. She is now 9, and his adopted daughter.

What made him stop and save her? "You never know who she`ll become, " he says.

It`s true about him, too, if he`s given a chance.

Sarah Tracy, a sophomore at Amherst, has interviewed more than 30 residents today. The Educate volunteer can`t keep the stories straight. She has run out of paper in her journal, and her pen is dry.

"How do you choose? How do you say this pain is worse than this pain?" she asks.

Now in its fourth year, the nonprofit has raised $150,000. But he number of applications Educate gets in the mail continues to rise to more than five a week, and each sponsorship requires about $630 a year, including tuition, school supplies, medical expenses and transportation. Educate commits to support each student as long as he or she wants to study.

Some classrooms have dirt floors, no electricity and are standing-room only. To send an e-mail, residents must catch a taxi 50 miles to the nearest city, wait in line for a dial-up modem and pay by the minute with money that would otherwise buy food or medicine.

A one-legged man staggers out of his house. A bomb in Rwanda crippled him. The balloon bellies of his five children show they`re starving.

Tracy hands him Glustrom`s e-mail address. She looks younger than her 20 years, with plump, pink lips and cheeks like a cherub. The refugee boys trail her in admiration, often reaching for her hand, which she doesn`t pull away.

Her robotic response: "Send an e-mail to this address. He`ll send you the application."

The old man`s face lights up. His English is poor. He thinks the paper means his children are chosen. Sarah tries to explain, but he continues grinning. She`s swept into the crowd.

"What is the balance between giving them hope and reality?" she asks.

The reality: This organization on which thousands of Africans have hung their fates is run by kids. They meet in their university student centers or high school classrooms and raise money through dodgeball tournaments, date auctions, donations and bake sales. The Amherst group, in Uganda in June, haggled the $10 a night cost to stay at the Kyangwali Catholic church, hoping to save their limited money for the scholarships - knowing that much money would take a refugee slashing through the fields a month to earn.

Back home, Tracy works three jobs, coaching field hockey, manning the chemistry stockroom and working as a geology teacher`s assistant. She attends Amherst on a full-ride scholarship, about $32,000 a year.

"They don`t realize it, but I`m in the same situation as they are, " she says. "That`s one of the reasons I joined Educate in the first place. I understand."

But Tracy already has more than most of the refugees ever will, even with the best education Africa has to offer.

Her sympathy also has frustrated her. Is her presence here - like the boys` hands she holds - a comforting beacon of hope or a tease for what they`ll never have?

"I guess I`ll have to separate my emotions from this, " she resigns. "Yet I feel like that`s why I`m here."

Tracy and the Educate volunteers interview dozens of applicants deep into the night, despite the camp commandant`s warning on the first day it was too dangerous to be out after dark.

A shadow explodes from the black wall of trees framing the road. The visitors cannot see the man`s face, but his jagged English is frantic. He taps one of their notebooks. He wants them to write down his name.

He doesn`t ask for scholarship information; maybe he`s too excited. He tells them he will be the president of the Congo someday - "the first president of books, not of guns" - and they should write down his name so they remember that it started right here.

As if the blind scribble across the page makes it so:

Irankunda Ndeze Immanuel.

Maybe that`s why they all stare.

The staring brown eyes don`t know how, but the would-be students think maybe in some way these visitors will help. And maybe they will. Even if they don`t have enough money.

They walk through the streets as symbols of hope. They are recruiting a few refugees, but they are also inspiring many more.

Emmy Smith, 20, an energetic, blond Amherst volunteer, adds a line to her travel journal:

"We`re reinforcing in children and parents the value of an education. We`re encouraging solidarity in a camp filled with racial tension. And most importantly, we`re creating hope in the midst of despair."

Edward Guma is furious, but he`s trying not to ruin the 11 p.m. dinner on Glustrom`s last night in Kyangwali.

Guma, 19, is one of the few Educate students from Sudan. Glustrom made two treks to Guma`s side of the camp this week, hoping to recruit more.

There`s friction between the Sudanese and Congolese. Not back home - their wars were civil - but because of outside aid organizations that favor one country`s refugees over another. Unease rooted in desperation.

In December, young refugees created their own Educate club, which they named Coburwa, for a new unity between residents from the Congo, Burundi and Rwanda.

Then earlier this week at a celebration called Educate Day, the club made a surprising announcement that it was changing its name to Coburwas - adding an "S" for Sudan. The crowd jumped to its feet in celebration, clapping and dancing and stirring up a haze of red dust.

But Guma thinks it was an empty act to impress Glustrom, who keeps urging the different sides of camp to work together.

Guma says amid the joyful singing at Educate Day, Congolese students forced his Sudanese friends to leave. They stole their chairs and demanded tickets, even though there weren`t any, Guma says.

He thinks Coburwa intentionally left off the "S" for Sudan to begin with.

A Congolese student sharing the dinner table with Guma and the Educate staff wears a white "Coburwa" T-shirt - no "S" for Sudan. He insists with a calm smile the club is new and evolving, and that Guma`s friends must have misunderstood.

Guma shakes his head.

"That`s a great speech, " he snaps, the sharpness in his voice signaling the end of the discussion.

It reminds Glustrom of how far Educate still has to go.

A letter arrives from Wereje Benson. The 23-year-old Congolese orphan is the president of Coburwas. He has emerged as the spokesman for the refugees, plastering the camp with posters about how Educate is changing lives and writing Glustrom`s friends letters almost daily.

Today, he writes:

"Your kindness, encouragement and sweet words give us hope, happiness. It`s incredible, and this leads to the extension of our existence. ...This puts us in good moods and hopeful feelings, causing us to behave like successful people already. Even if poor or sick, any bad situation, I know you pray for me and you care, hence getting hope and relief.

"Hope is vital."

The Educate volunteers have not given him anything tangible. He`s still not selected for a scholarship.

Yet he adds, "It`s unfortunate that I am not able to express my happiness which is about to break my heart."

This is it.

Hepburn and Glustrom exchange knowing nods. Their school will look like the Catholic church where they`re staying.

Doors form an "L" around a courtyard. Out back, acres of vegetables and fruit orchards make the property self-sufficient. A rickety barn houses cows and chickens. Instead of contaminated water wells, the building has gutters that tunnel rain into tanks.

They could do this, Glustrom says.

They could raise money to build an Educate school, instead of scattering their 48 students to 13 schools across the country. They could feed them nutritious meals instead of watery beans and rice. And as part of the deal, the graduates could teach underclassmen for a few years before pursuing their careers.

It could also be the answer the question every Educate student asks: "How can I repay you?"

They`d need about $1 million a year to build and run it, Glustrom estimates. A friend immediately volunteers to take off a semester next fall to move to Uganda and line up the details. They could start building in five years, Glustrom says. He sees the future as only one large endowment away.

It sounds crazy. But then again, that`s what Amnesty International thought of Glustrom`s original proposal that ignited Educate in 2002.

"I do think it`s possible, " Glustrom says.

This is only Educate`s dawn, he insists. It is young, like its volunteers.

Coburwas` president, Wereje Benson, is waiting by the gate when a taxi rumbles up to take Glustrom and his friends away June 22. Benson watches the car dissolve into a fog of dust.

It`s like the negative for the photograph of Educate`s beginning, when Glustrom first rolled up in a taxi four years ago. Only instead of Wereje Benson, it was his best friend with a similar name, Benson Olivier. Benson Olivier shook Glustrom`s hand. His future changed. He became the first Educate scholar and the catalyst for the organization.

As Wereje Benson stands, waving goodbye, his own future is uncertain.

The next morning, he hires a taxi to take him 50 miles to the city of Hoima, past the Catholic church, the commandant`s hut and a vast forest that hides insurgents.

Benson finds an Internet café and sends an e-mail to the Educate volunteers. He wants his to be the first name they see when they get home, and it is. He asks for photos of their families and their prayers as he takes his final exams.

He doesn`t mention his scholarship application, still floating in limbo between his dreams and the brutal maize fields. His story might not have a happy ending.

Most don`t.

Benson asks his new friends to remember him and leaves it at that, hoping their time in Africa taught them that on the other side of the planet, one man`s ripple is another man`s wave.

Starting a club
High schools typically need to get permission from an administrator and need a teacher sponsor. New Vista, Boulder and Fairview high schools have local clubs.

Clubs that raise enough money can adopt a student.

Educate can help provide brochures, posters, stamps and other costs related to hosting fundraising events.

How to help
Donate online at Click on "donate" at the top of the screen.

Mail a check to:
4492 Burr Place
Boulder, CO 80303

The cost of education
The average cost to sponsor a student:

Tuition (trimester/year): $75/$225

Total cost per student including tuition, school supplies, medical expenses, and transportation (trimester/year): $210/$630

For more information
E-mail or Eric Glustrom at

Kyangwali Refugee Settlement Where: The Hoima district of western Uganda

Who: About 17,800 Congolese, Sudanese, Rwandan, Kenyan, Burundian and Ethiopian refugees.

The life: Upon arrival, residents receive farming and cooking equipment, tarps, blankets, a plot of land, seeds and small food rations.
Refugees in Uganda also receive free health care, primary education, water and access to community-service workers and income-generating programs. Refugees are expected to provide for themselves.

Common hardships: Hunger, disease, abduction, illiteracy, rape, robbery, poorly defined property rights. Secondary education is not provided and limited to the more affluent. Camps have limited opportunities to generate income needed to send children to secondary school.

Source: Andrea Samuelson at

Children in Uganda The Lord`s Resistance Army, the most active Ugandan rebel group, has abducted more than 14,000 children in Uganda and forced them to become rebel fighters.

Abducted children - both boys and girls - make up more than 85 percent of the rebel`s forces. They are often beaten, raped, forced to kill others and each other as a test of loyalty.

They are also considered government enemies and military targets.

According to the Women`s Commission, "These young people have been abused twice; they are abducted and forced to fight and are then attacked for fighting, instead of being protected and rescued."

Source: Andrea Samuelson at

The refugee life
About 220,000 refugees live in Uganda, most from Rwanda, Sudan and Congo. The refugees from Rwanda fled the genocide of 1994. The refugees from Sudan are largely a result of the Christian/Arab tension between the south and the north. The refugees from Congo had to flee because mineral wars and groups fighting for control of the country`s resources have killed many people and left the country in ruins.

Uganda does what it can to care for the refugees, but it already has trouble caring for its own people, because it is a developing country. But they have still managed to do a relatively good job. And while the conditions in a place like the Kyangwali refugee camp are hard to think of as good, relative to many places in Africa, Kyangwali is actually much better.

I think it`s amazing that Uganda has remained peaceful in spite of the bloody wars in Congo, Sudan and Rwanda surrounding it. It gives me hope to see a country like Uganda doing well in the midst of all the killing.

But after the refugees flee they have no one to care for them. I know that there must be so many talented people among them who can make a large contribution to solving Africa`s problems if they are just given the chance.

- Eric Glustrom, founder of Educate

Dream Deferred, Part 2

The here and now
Life in the camp today

Story and photos by Aimee Heckel
Publication: Daily Camera

Publication date: 9/4/2006

Editor`s note:
Fairview High School graduate Eric Glustrom established the Boulder-based nonprofit, Educate, to help fund the education of students in Uganda. In June, Camera Staff Writer Aimee Heckel traveled to Africa with Glustrom and his fellow college student volunteers to recruit African refugees and orphans to sponsor through school and to check on current scholarship recipients - students helping students change the world. Heckel`s series began Sunday and concludes Tuesday. See the whole series at

UGANDA - A bony woman shouts from a wooden hut on the side of the road.

"I heard that muzungus would come some day, " she calls. "I heard they would come and save us."

Muzungus. White people.

She`s talking to six college students who are hiking several miles across the Kyangwali refugee camp to the commandant`s office.

The students, with a nonprofit called Educate, are the only white people most of the residents have ever seen or ever will. They`re visiting Uganda this summer to recruit more refugees to put through school. They`re led by Eric Glustrom, who founded the organization in 2002 when he was 17 and a student at Fairview High School. These muzungus come from Educate`s Amherst College branch in Massachusetts, where Glustrom, now 21, is studying neuroscience. The volunteers are also checking up on the 40-plus refugees Educate already sponsors with scholarships and other financial support. Most are orphans from neighboring, war-torn nations, and they say encouragement from their western friends is often the only thing that keeps them pushing forward.

The bony woman's story rushes past her lips in desperation. She's a widow, twice. One husband was a victim of rebels, the second of disease. She has two children and wants to go back to school. She only has a fifth-grade education, though, and her unruly hair is graying.

The English language - and a history of suffering - is the thread between the camp's various tribes and nationalities. The camp is divided, most notably between the Sudanese and Congolese. They use the same mud, yet even their houses look different. Their rivalry is weighing on 21-year-old Glustrom.

Glustrom's tall, blond friend tells the woman to e-mail her scholarship application. He gives her Glustrom's e-mail address, wishes her luck and walks on. She stares at the paper like it's her ticket out of here.

But it won't be. There aren't enough donations, and she's not a good investment. With only five scholarships to give, the Educate volunteers are careful to pick young, healthy people who are most likely to succeed.

She's too far gone.

The camp commandant forbids the visitors from being out after dark because of recent rebel attacks in the area. A group of insurgents hijacked a van and robbed it at gunpoint. Now taxis must travel with a police escort and only while the sun is high.

"Muzungus are a target, " the commandant says.

This commanding officer charged with the visitor's safety is a few years older than Glustrom and eight months into the high-stress job. Glustrom expects he'll quit before the year is over. Most do.

The commandant Glustrom met on his first visit in 2002 was removed from office after accusations that he'd randomly arrested, tortured and slaughtered refugees. The New York-based Human Rights Watch reported allegations that he raped a Congolese refugee woman, but he was freed by police and threw himself a party to celebrate.

The new commandant is irritated and fiddling with the tie on his suit. He doesn't appear to be as much concerned with the visitors' safety as keeping the camp calm. The visitors stand out, wearing sunglasses, reeking of bug spray and dragging name-brand backpacks. None but Glustrom have visited Africa before. They don't know what to expect.

Homes here are regularly torched. Residents report being stalked by the rebels who chased them from their homelands. Last week, one man looked up from the community waterhole into the dark eye of a shotgun. He ran. He was used to it. He survived.

As a way to rally hope in these conditions, Wereje Benson, a 23-year-old orphan from Congo, started an Educate club at Kyangwali in December. Still, Educate only has five scholarships to award this summer, and so far, Benson isn't on the list.

He describes the refugee life in a letter:

"We are people who don't know other members of our family, like parents or uncles. If you get a problem of any kind, you fight yourself. Sometimes spending days without getting what to eat. Things concerning education and medical care here, we live under God's mercy. If one is sick and cannot afford treatment, then you have to stay home waiting either to die or to be healed by God.

"So this is our life."

Now Glustrom is walking across camp to one of the biggest celebrations of the year.

His leisurely pace is nearly stagnant as he pushes gently through a sea of bodies. Some are half-naked, the dirt outlining their muscles or ribs. Others are dressed up in all of the clothes they own: plaid scarves, jackets, ski caps and startlingly clean shirts. It's hard to breathe in the dry heat and the crowd.

A square of paper hangs on a mango tree down the road: "Welcome to Kyangwali. I was waiting for death only! Due to imponderable problems. Lack of education. I was puzzled. Amazed. But due to Educate, I'm happy! I can smile!"

It makes Glustrom blush. The enthusiasm is embarrassing.

The signs are everywhere - not only a symbol of appreciation but also of improving literacy.

"Educate! You reinstated my senses! You unburdened my burdens. You are intending to break the circle of poverty. We love you."

"Mr. War took away our relatives, parents, brothers and sisters. I don't own a country. My names are refugee, orphan. But now!! Educate, our guardian. Eric W., our uncle. Long live Eric."

"Long live Eric?" his friends repeat.

They laugh - not at the message, but that it's referring to Glustrom, their buddy with wild blond curls who jokes that his greatest accomplishments include downing seven donuts in four minutes, and a gallon of milk in an hour. A normal, funny guy back home. Not here.

To Wereje Benson, the Congolese leader of the camp's Educate club, Glustrom's visit is his only chance. Either Benson gets an education - and with it, a pass to leave the refugee camp - or he stays here digging in the fields making about one quarter a day until he catches polio or malaria. He gives himself 10 more years.

"If someone has provided education, you have stopped their death, " he says. "If you give money, you have given life. You will be someone responsible, you can help others and live much longer. I can be useful to the country. I can help the whole world."

Top schools cost less than $100 per trimester. Back in Boulder, the sacrifice would be forgoing lattes for a month or a stack of new CDs.

For Benson, that is the difference between changing the world and dying full of unrealized dreams.

All or nothing.

The ceremony starts abruptly, shortly after 2 p.m.

A boy pounds on a metal hubcap hanging from a tree. A baby wails. A woman addresses the crowd, but no one can hear her. In the distance, young voices sing. They grow louder. They're here now.

"Eric Glustrom is an Educate founder.

Congratulation for your gracious love.

Through Educate, you restored hope.

You rehabilitated our success in future.

Dearest orphans, come on, come on, don't cry.

Come on, join us in order to succeed.

There is a guardian known as Educate,

Our helper, to brighten our future."

Everyone's eyes watch Glustrom. His eyes watch his feet.

"I didn't expect this, " Glustrom tells his friends. "It's a little much."

And it's just the beginning. It seems as if all 18,000 refugees who live here are crowded around the courtyard of the Kinakeitaka Primary School for "Educate Day 2006."

They perform for hours. They line a wooden table with more food than most families have seen in months - watery beans and bland dough. There's no silverware. The hungry crowd watches but smiles.

As the president of Kyangwali's Educate club, Wereje Benson holds the mic. It sounds like he speaks into a tin can.

"There is not any person who can express his happiness when he sees someone from America in Kyangwali because of you or me, a refugee who is an orphan, " he says, flailing his hands. "Who are you to bring these people here? Who am I? I cannot express my happiness because this is beyond my thinking capacity."


He continues, "We are orphans, but we're doing better because of the presence of Glustrom. This is our father. Our guardian. Our uncle. Our everything."

Glustrom's cheeks are as red as the Ugandan dirt. He doesn't feel like he deserves this. Considering the number of people he still wants to help, he feels like he's done nothing.

The assembly rolls past the sunset, when the mosquitoes and stray dogs take over the streets. It continues after the visitors fight through the masses and duck away.

They walk miles back to the church in darkness and silence, for the first time comprehending the magnitude of what they're doing in Africa.

It's 2 a.m., and 21-year-old James Hepburn can't sleep. The Amherst senior from London lies on his back on the ground outside the Catholic church where his other friends have been sleeping for hours. The stars look closer on the equator, almost within grabbing distance.

Kyangwali is simple, and in that, it's beautiful, Hepburn says. Nothing like Boulder's Pearl Street, lined with immaculate rows of flowers, high-end shops and coffeehouses.

The Kyangwali people climb trees to shake down fresh fruit for the visitors. They offer everything they have, from stale infant cookies to freshly plucked sugarcane sticks. Hepburn loves how the handshakes linger for 30 seconds or longer in Africa, where touch means hope.

Still, Hepburn can't stop wondering what's happening around him that he's not seeing.

Like the mother on the verge of tears, crawling across the dust on her knees, unable to work because of AIDS. The cholera outbreak. Too many eyes glow an eerie yellow from malaria.

It's like the snakes. Everyone keeps warning Hepburn of the green mambas, river cobras and Gaboon vipers. The residents say snakes wrap the branches of the mango trees he climbed earlier today and in the tall grass he walked through wearing flip-flops.

Yet he hasn't seen a single one.

The refugee life. It's winding through green hallways of maize, embracing the simple beauty around you, but knowing behind one of those stalks, a cobra may be sleeping.

COMING TUESDAY: The volunteers offer inspiration to the hopeful refugees - and come up with a major aspiration of their own.