When my son Zak was born in August, 2002, I fell deeply in love with him, a sweet, defenseless baby who was completely dependent on me for his survival. After holding him for just a minute after his birth, his left lung collapsed, and he was rushed into the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) where he was placed in an oxygen tent. Even though I just had a C-section and could barely get out of bed, I propelled myself to the NICU. I limped along the long halls of the hospital, leaning heavily on the railings along the wall to support myself. Nothing was going to keep me separated from my baby!
In the NICU, I held Zak and nursed him for the first time. Within 24 hours, his lung was repaired, and within 48 hours, we were free to go home. At the time, I took for granted the level of medical care that my son and I received. Although it is a universal right, many mothers and newborns do not have access to health care, especially in developing countries.
The first two years of Zak’s life came with the same worries and sleepless nights that many parents experience. But the joy we felt with Zak in our lives was immeasurable. The fierceness of my love and attention to his well being opened up my heart to the fragility of life and the needs of children all over the world.
But over the next few years, two pregnancies that resulted in miscarriage left me searching for a higher purpose. It was through these challenging times that a voice deep inside of me directed me to learn more about the challenges that the world’s most vulnerable children face.
I was distraught as I learned statistics like:
I couldn’t help but imagine the children I know, suddenly losing their parents and then needing to raise themselves without any resources whatsoever. Or children dying of a disease that is treatable and preventable — but only if they have access to healthcare. I kept repeating to anyone who would listen, “these children are just like my child." How can it be that their precious lives are wiped out, without a mention to the rest of the world? Why isn’t this the headline on the evening news?
The realization has never left me:
I was moved to make a difference and I knew that I had to go and bear witness — to see for myself what was actually happening on the ground and to see how I could make a difference. After my intention was set in motion, I soon met the amazing Sister Ernestine Akulu, a Ugandan nun in Luwero, Uganda, and a lifelong partnership was formed. In 2006, Just Like My Child Foundation (JLMC) was born.
More than a decade later, outstanding progress has been made. The JLMC team has grown into a corps that deeply believes in Margaret Mead’s famous quote,
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
As I like to say, "Never doubt what can happen when a Ugandan nun and a Jewish mother put their heads together."
Our partnership has developed Sister Ernestine’s small health clinic into a fully equipped hospital where over 200,000 people in the district of Luwero, Uganda now have access to quality healthcare. More than 13,000 mothers have received critical medical services since 2006, increasing maternal and newborn health in this rural area. Over the years, JLMC continued to collaborate with communities to improve their children’s access to education, create microenterprise opportunities for families, and increase knowledge about human rights. As a result, thousands of people now have the tools to create a better future for their children.
Just Like My Child has evolved into a learning organization. Sustainable development is never a straight line and while we are fiercely committed to protecting children, we are equally committed to measuring and evaluating the progress we are making as we fine-tune our approach.
Through the years, we’ve invested in many sustainable programs. However, what we have observed is that unless a girl can be empowered to stay in school and avoid the obstacles that make her vulnerable, it is as though we are mopping up the floor while the sink is overflowing. A girl can easily succumb to the pressures of poverty and culture, drop out of school early to be forced into child marriage and early pregnancy, and she is highly susceptible to sexual and gender-based violence. It’s easy for girls to remain stuck in the cycle of poverty rather than become the brilliant solution that uplifts families and entire communities.
Our development of the Girl Power Project® was in response to the issues we’ve seen girls face in central Uganda. These issues aren’t unique to Uganda. Global research shows that educated girls are the greatest resource for changing the cycle of poverty. Through a passionate community of supporters and alongside local leaders, the Girl Power Project is planting the seeds for a sustainable movement of change in Luwero, Uganda by equipping girls with the tools to navigate adolescence successfully.
Our vision is to create a dramatic improvement in the world’s health, economic stability, and environment by empowering vulnerable adolescent girls to achieve their full potential. I know that I speak for so many people when I say that all children are Just Like My Child. Let’s close the great divide.