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home : features : catholic schools

8/17/2017 8:30:00 AM
ST PETER'S, SARATOGA
Teen's trip to Uganda was a lesson on gratitude, giving
ZOE MAKES FRIENDS.
ZOE MAKES FRIENDS.
To a lot of Americans, "First World problems" and "luxury problems" are just funny Twitter hashtags, used to describe tangled earbuds or mushy french fries.

But when Zoe Poli-Laddis of St. Peter's parish in Saratoga Springs went on a service trip to Uganda this summer, she saw for herself the disconnect between her life as an eighth-grader at Maple Avenue Middle School and the lives of the Ugandan children she met.

One 14-year-old in Uganda named Violet ended up being "sponsored" by Zoe's family. The Poli-Laddises are paying for her education, in addition to the schooling of two other teenagers.

"If [Violet] didn't get into school this year, she would end up married and pregnant," noted Zoe, who's a year younger than Violet.

The Poli-Laddis family -- parents Dr. Theo Laddis and Dr. Kim Poli, both cardiologists; and Zoe's brother, Alex, a high-school sophomore -- are not new to service-oriented trips. They had been to southeast Asia a few years ago and were struck by the intense poverty they saw there.

Dr. Poli called it "an overwhelming jolt to come back to my home and see what we have."

Zoe told The Evangelist she was excited about going to Africa, because this trip involved even more service work and volunteers. About 35 people traveled to Uganda in late June through early July with The Giving Circle, a Saratoga-based charity founded by Mark and Kelly Bertrand.

The Giving Circle was created in 2005 in response to the devastation wrought by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. The charity assists with recovery on the Gulf Coast and around New York City and runs Saratoga's Code Blue emergency homeless shelter.

The Giving Circle Africa also funds the Koi Koi House orphanage, two schools, a health clinic and more in Uganda. Women are being taught crafts and The Giving Circle is helping to build a farm there so they have sustainable sources of income.

Zoe expected to be doing manual labor on the trip. Instead, she taught preschoolers, played sports with children of various ages and introduced the Ugandan kids to basketball.

"Some do speak English," she said. "The ones who don't are mostly little, so you just go along with it and play with them."

In fact, Zoe was surprised at how comfortable the children were with their new American friends: "They would come right up and grab your hand and hug you."

Kagoma Gate was the poorest village in Uganda until The Giving Circle built a school and health center there. The charity also helped improve Busoga Primary School in Wairaka village.

At one school, Zoe showed older students how to work with microscopes. They examined clean water from the village's wells, comparing it to contaminated water to understand that, "no matter how thirsty they get, they shouldn't drink [polluted water], because they could get sick."

Before the trip, Zoe had given a talk to peers in the faith formation program at St. Peter's and then collected bags of school supplies from them, along with a pile of soccer balls. She said the gifts were a hit in Uganda, since "they play soccer pretty much every day."

It's not all play for Ugandan children, though. Some as young as six have already worked in the sugar cane fields. "We'd see four- or five-year-old girls with their baby brother or sister on their back, because they'd have to take care of them," Zoe said.

Even now, she said, the children who go to school must get up "super early" in the morning to finish chores first. Only children who have sponsors can afford an education, and the ones who get to attend school are incredibly grateful.

Many students the Poli-Laddises met assumed all Americans knew one another and would ask the family to deliver messages to sponsors like, "I just want them to know how much I love them. I hope I get to meet them someday."

The Poli-Laddises met their own sponsored students: high-schooler Tsubi, who also goes by "Fred;" and Esther, who's 11 or 12 years old.

On one day of the trip, Zoe attended classes with Esther to experience education in Uganda from the viewpoint of a student. Zoe admitted she didn't get a lot of classwork done, since the students were fascinated by her presence and clamored all at once, "Who is the president [of America]? Do you know Superman or the Hulk or Ironman? Are they real?"

"I've heard a lot about them," was Zoe's tactful response.

Esther was shy, but Tsubi, who wants to study both agriculture and art, gave Zoe's brother paintings and an entire book of drawings he had done. Tsubi ended up at the orphanage founded by The Giving Circle after both of his parents died of HIV/AIDS.

Since none of the children at the orphanage know their birthdays, Zoe threw one party for all 15 children there. Dr. Poli told The Evangelist she was surprised to see her daughter take the lead on decorating and choosing party favors like Frisbees and balls, saying, "I've got this."

The trip had a big impact on Zoe. She's now more aware of issues affecting the Third World and wants to become more involved in resolving them. She said she may become a doctor like her parents someday, so "I could go back [to Uganda] and help out."

Dr. Poli recalled buying coffee after the trip and thinking, "That could buy a month's worth of meals" for a child in Africa. Having worked at The Giving Circle's health clinic in Uganda, she said she saw an infant dying of starvation and realized that the single mother could not take the baby to a hospital and leave her four other children unattended.

Dr. Poli felt helpless. She quoted Mr. Bertrand, the co-founder of The Giving Circle, who insists that "education is the way to change this" cycle of poverty in Africa.

Zoe, for her part, learned about gratitude: how much more the Ugandan children appreciate what they have, compared to Americans; and "how little we [have to] give up that can change their lives.

"I hope to be able to go back," she said.





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