Penn State students encourage, learn from youngsters in Ugandan orphanage

Maddie Aiken
March 20, 2019

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — When Ishmat was 8 years old, he wanted to be a pilot. At 9, he wanted to be an engineer. Now, at 10, he wants to be a doctor.

Alison Barrett, a Penn State senior studying biology and Schreyer Honors Scholar, said none of those jobs will be easy for the orphaned child to secure because of external circumstances. However, she encouraged him that with hard work, he could achieve whatever he set his mind to.

Barrett met Ishmat at Malayaka House — a nonprofit orphanage in Entebbe, Uganda. Barrett volunteered at Malayaka House over winter break with Penn State’s chapter of Empower Orphans, a nonprofit organization founded in 2009 by Neha Gupta, a 2018 Penn State graduate and Schreyer Scholar alumna, to help orphans around the world. Penn State’s chapter is the first collegiate chapter of the organization.

“The kids need people to empower them and tell them anything is possible, because it really is,” said Barrett, who also serves as Empower Orphans’ director of finance. “These kids are special and I would not be surprised if in 20 years they’re all doctors or pilots.”

Along with Barrett, six other Penn State students and two faculty members traveled to Uganda, where they spent a week forming relationships with the children, other volunteers, and aunties — the women who take care of both the children and home. During the trip from Dec. 27, 2018, to Jan. 4, 2019, the group lived in a house within the orphanage’s compounds.

‘Falling in love’ with Malayaka House

Mitch Kirsch, the Schreyer Honors College's Associate Dean for Student Affairs, attended the trip with the group and said it was an excellent opportunity for the students to serve another community.

“I think service is always an important aspect of our collective experiences, and the opportunity to go to a completely different part of the world, experience a different culture, step outside of our comfort zone is something we should always do, regardless of age,” Kirsch said. “If we can plant that seed while students are in college, it sets out for the rest of your life. It’s part of an education that you can’t get in a classroom or reading.”

It was Barrett’s second trip to the orphanage, as Empower Orphans traveled to Malayaka House for the first time in March 2018. After the first trip, Barrett said she “didn't have a choice” to go back.

“I fell in love with the place instantly,” she said. “You develop these strong relationships with the kids. Even though I was there for one week, they became my family.”

The impact of service

Throughout the trip, the students’ main task was to play and interact with the more than 40 children who live at the house and assist Malayaka House’s caregivers, the aunties. The students brought donations and activities like tie-dye supplies and soccer nets with them.

Barrett said her first trip focused on developing relationships with the children; the second trip focused on strengthening those relationships. Unlike the first time students from Empower Orphans visited, the children were on their summer break, providing the students with opportunity to spend more time building the already-established relationships.

The students spent most of their time at the house, playing soccer, jumping rope and dancing with the children. The volunteers also helped cook and clean the house.

While each day was special for the students, Natasha Ferguson and Sarah Stephens, who serve as Empower Orphans’ co-chairs of international relations, said the New Year’s 2019 celebration was an unforgettable experience.

“New Year’s was probably my favorite New Year’s I’ve ever had,” said Ferguson, a Penn State junior studying industrial engineering. 

Malayaka House is different from many orphanages in that it does not offer adoption. Instead, each child who comes to Malayaka House becomes part of a giant family. Stephens, a sophomore majoring in secondary education and mathematics, said the familial atmosphere was evident to her shortly after arriving at the orphanage.

“I don’t think I’ve ever gotten closer with a group of people in such a short amount of time,” Stephens said. “Even within the first day, within the first couple of hours, you feel like you’ve been there your whole life.”

The Empower Orphans group also went on a two-day safari through a company that gave Malayaka House 20 percent of the group’s profit. Malayaka House is currently creating its own safari to help sustain itself. Rather than relying on donations, the orphanage is big on self-sustainability — it currently runs a pizza business and sells coffee to make money. Once a child comes to Malayaka House, that child not only becomes part of the family but helps the orphanage continue to support itself. According to the organization, this self-sustainability teaches the children work skills necessary for adult life.

Because Malayaka House is self-sustaining, it does not rely on monetary donations and volunteers to thrive. Instead, volunteer groups like Empower Orphans focus their time on enriching and promoting the children’s well-being.

Inspiring career choices

Like Barrett, Stephens went on the March 2018 trip to Malayaka House. However, this time, she organized the trip alongside Ferguson. The club spent the fall 2018 semester planning the trip. While students had to pay to go on the first trip, nearly all expenses for this trip were funded by the Schreyer Honors College, the University Park Allocation Committee and the Student Engagement Committee. The group also received approval from Penn State’s Travel Safety Network. The group plans to make the trip annual and visit the orphanage every winter break.

Each student had several takeaways from the trip. Ferguson said her perception of happiness completely shifted after spending a week at Malayaka House.

Barrett’s trips to Malayaka House have shaped her future career plans. She plans to spend a year after graduation completing a service project, and her dream is to one day serve as a physician in Entebbe.

While Kirsch believes the students made an important impact on Malayaka House, she said the orphanage also impacted them.

“I said to the students when we left, ‘I think we all learned more from them than they learned from us.’"

About the Schreyer Honors College

The Schreyer Honors College promotes academic excellence with integrity, the building of a global perspective, and creation of opportunities for leadership and civic engagement. Schreyer Honors Scholars total more than 2,000 students at University Park and 20 Commonwealth Campuses. They represent the top 2 percent of students at Penn State who excel academically and lead on campus.

Last Updated April 03, 2019