In the east-central African nation of Uganda, children typically don’t have much.
Most of them don’t have access to electronic devices and social media, many of them have only a few items of clothing, and a significant percentage don’t have parents – at least not parents who are active in their lives. But thanks to a Cabool-based organization known as Fields of Dreams Uganda (FoDU), one thing many of them do have isn’t of material or physical nature, but is nonetheless crucial to the well being of any human: Hope.
“Our primary goal is to provide hope to the orphaned and vulnerable children of Uganda using the vehicles of soccer and education,” said FoDU founder and executive director Michael Warneke. “Our programming cuts across a lot of areas, but central to all that we do is the message of hope for these kids. We want them to know with certainty that their life has purpose, that their story is important, and that the world needs their gifts, passions and abilities.”
Warneke began FoDU in 2012. He first traveled to Uganda in 2009 with a group out of Tennessee.
“I was working in ministry at the time and had had a heart for Uganda for a long time,” he said. “I fell in love with the culture and people there, and on the plane ride home I wrote on the back of a cocktail napkin the first few things I envisioned for Fields of Dreams Uganda.”
Warneke, 39, is a native of Wisconsin who lived in Illinois and West Virginia during his youth. His wife, Abby, works with the Cabool School District in third and fourth-grade special education. The couple has three boys: Gideon (a fifth-grader), Abel (a third-grader) and Solomon (who’s in pre-school).
FoDU’s main office is at Second Baptist Church in Cabool, and it has one additional staff member in the U.S. and 15 fulltime native staff members in Uganda. Warneke said that even though he has spent years in Christian ministry, FoDU isn’t a “Christian organization,” and its rosters of staff and volunteers reflect that.
“They come from all walks of life,” he said. “Many of our programs incorporate Biblical principals, and our work is a direct response to live out a faith that demands us to care for the orphans and widows of the world, but we’ve had Hindus, Muslims and even atheists volunteer with us.”
Uganda is about the size of Oregon and is renowned for being where the Nile River begins at the immense Lake Victoria. It has close to 40 million residents and is the second “youngest” country in the world, as the median age of its citizens is only about 15 1/2 years.
FoDU partners with nine schools in Uganda and serves more than 6,400 kids. Its education-oriented initiatives focus on school campus needs assessments and grants, teacher training and support, the provision of feminine hygiene kits and girl empowerment workshops, technology programs and equipment and more.
One tool FoDU uses with Ugandan kids is called a DREAMS plan.
“It’s a document that helps them understand, ‘these are my gifts, my abilities and my passions, and this is where I can put it to use in society.’ It’s kind of a self-assessment and career assessment.”
Warneke said feminine hygiene is severely lacking in Uganda, so FoDU regularly distributes kits with a year’s worth of appropriate supplies to girls “of age.”
“Before the kits were introduced, it was common in Uganda for girls to miss 20 percent of their education,” Warneke said. “Most girls just avoid school every time their period comes around because they don’t want to risk any embarrassment, and they might only have two dresses and they want to take care of them.
“These kits literally change a girls life.”
To help give school kids access to some of what technology can offer, FoDU has brought more than 100 laptop computers and numerous projectors to Uganda. Some have to be solar powered, because four of the partner schools have no electricity on campus.
“It’s kind of a walk back in time,” Warneke said, “and it’s amazing to see what happens when the kids get to utilize technology.”
Warneke travels to Uganda five or six times a year, with each trip lasting 10 to 12 days. He is often accompanied by teams of about eight to 12 volunteers.
“Our volunteers range in age and skill sets, and their most important job while in Uganda is simply being present,” Warneke said. “The presence of our volunteers in Uganda relays such an important message, and the kids we serve there understand the sacrifice of time, money and travel that our volunteers give to travel to the other side of the globe to love on them.
“Their presence tells the kids that they matter, that the world has not forgotten them and that the world truly needs them.”
Warneke said the subject of “toxic aid” (or assistance that has negative side effects) is strongly considered in every step taken by FoDU.
“We try to make sure that we’re bringing the right resources to the people we’re serving and make sure that we, as Americans, are not assuming we have all the answers,” he said. “Cultural sensitivity is one of our core values. In Uganda, there’s still a survival mentality, and we have to work within that mindset. One of our hardest lessons has been to shift from long term to short term thinking.”
SOCCER PROVIDES AN AVENUE
Soccer is huge in Uganda, hence the name “Fields of Dreams” Uganda.
“We knew early on that soccer was going to be a big part of what we did,” Warneke said. “In many developing countries, including Uganda, soccer is king. The main reason for that is you need zero resources to play.”
Evidence of that can be readily found in Uganda, where kids frequently make their own soccer balls out of trash or banana fibers. A banana leaf soccer ball is even a noticeable part of the FoDU logo.
“You set up a couple of bricks for a goal, and you’ve got a match,” Warneke said. “Unlike with baseball, football and many other sports that require specialized equipment and even balls, a soccer match can happen instantly.”
But soccer can also be an integral component in the growth and maturation of Ugandan kids.
“It’s an escape, it’s family, it’s community and it provides so many life lessons,” Warneke said, “like how to win and lose with grace and kindness, how to interact with people and so much more.”
In many cases, Warneke said, soccer might be the only rock in a Ugandan child’s otherwise muddy life, and a rare thing for them to truly rely on.
“I had a great home life and stable childhood,” he said, “with great siblings, great parents and I went to very good schools. But even in that environment, sports were still huge for me.
“If you remove all of that positive structure from a kid’s life and just leave the sports, there’s so much more power it has in their daily existence. So many other things are chaotic and unstable and you can’t trust any other system, so soccer becomes something opposite of all that.”
FoDU subsequently began providing soccer gear and coaches to partner schools, and even improved or built soccer fields and sponsored games, tournaments and clinics.
“It really provides us a foot in the door,” Warneke said.
FoDU even organizes soccer games between rival tribes from Uganda’s Northern Region and Central Region.
“That breaks down a lot of the tribalism,” Warneke said, “and a lot of the lies that have been instilled culturally that teach the kids, ‘I’m from this tribe and you’re from that tribe and we don’t get along.’ Those things just disappear.”
FOCUSING ON THE GOOD IN LIFE
Decency and respect are virtually a given among Ugandans, Warneke said.
“The people of Uganda are some of the most humble, kind and sincere people I have ever come across,” Warneke said. “Their kindness does not stem from what they are given, but from a deeper place that every life has value. Hospitality in Uganda is paramount, and you are treated like family regardless of your religious or ethnic background.
“With the lack of social services, community is paramount to one’s success and survival, when you must depend on one another for the basic necessities of life, you learn to show kindness at an early age.”
Warneke has learned that while the average Ugandan may be cash poor, they’re rich in other ways.
“Regardless of what some of the people of Uganda may lack, they certainly make up for it in their over-abundance of joy and overall contentment in life,” he said. “I certainly have become a much better person because of all of these wonderful traits that my Ugandan brothers and sisters have instilled in me over the years.”
SPREADING HOPE AND JOY
Warneke said FoDU’s presence has resulted in many positive results among kids being served.
“We have seen a real change in the confidence of these children,” he said. “There is a renewed drive and determination for many of them as they face challenges and attempt to outline a positive future. We have helped to create a culture where character and integrity are of high importance, and the way the children value one another has been a beautiful outcome from our work.
“When you walk onto a FoDU partner campus in Uganda, you simply notice a joy, a zeal for life and a focus to achieve their dreams – and those are things so many of their peers are lacking.”
For Warneke, seeing a child sharing the impact of FoDU’s work has been one of the most satisfying aspects of the mission.
“One of the greatest outcomes is the fact that the children we serve are truly becoming ambassadors of hope,” he said. “They have taken what they have heard, and they are carrying these messages that ‘the world needs you,’ and ‘hope is a basic need,’ and spreading them in their own communities. True empowerment happens when it comes full circle – when you see a once scared and hopeless child sharing joy and excitement with their peers about how their friends and family were born for a purpose and to make an impact in this world. Young men and women have a bright future where once only storm clouds dotted the horizon.”
The bottom line is, FoDU is helping nurture hope in a place where it might otherwise be rare.
“For a child living in a developing country like Uganda, it is easy to believe that your life was simply a mistake from the start,” Warneke said. “When everyday needs are a struggle, it is easy to lose hope that tomorrow has the potential to be better than today. For a Ugandan child to know that they have someone in their corner rooting them on in life – someone who is there to help them navigate life’s trials – allows these kids to face their often uncertain futures with a sense of anticipation instead of dread.”
Warneke welcomes new volunteers to accompany FoDU on trips to Uganda, and many have gone from the surrounding area.
“For anyone doubting that you would have anything to offer these children, your presence and love truly is more than enough,” Warneke said, “and we would love to have you join us on a future trip.”
“When every day needs are a struggle, it is easy to lose hope that tomorrow has the potential to be better than today.”
FIELDS OF DREAMS UGANDA FOUNDER MIKE WARNEKE