As a child in Catholic grammar school, Jean Semler was deeply moved by the stories of pagan babies and eagerly donated her little spend money to the Adopt-a-Pagan-Baby collection each year. In high school, the Sisters of Charity of Saint Elizabeth expanded her understanding of Catholicism practiced in different countries. As she grew older, she remained haunted by the disparity between children in the United States and those in certain parts of the world, and the hunger those in poverty felt for knowledge of God. By the time she graduated high school, she felt called to missionary ministry and her heart was set on Africa.
Drawn by the Vincentian mission to serve the poor, Jean entered the Sisters of Charity of Saint Elizabeth in September 1963. When it came time to choose a career, she had two options: teaching or nursing. The congregation did not offer a missionary program. Jean studied nursing and remained in the congregation for 10 years serving patients at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Paterson. But still her heart felt besieged by the image of needy children and families living in poverty.
She entered the business world, married and started her own family. Soon the pieces of her vocation puzzle started to fall into place.
“While working at a major pharmaceutical company, my eyes opened to the devastation caused by AIDs to families and communities in Africa,” she said. “The draw to serve the needy in Africa only intensified. Upon retirement, my husband Dave and I decided to volunteer our skills to help those suffering from AIDs in Africa.
“In August 2006, we traveled to Uganda and met a Catholic priest who encouraged us to first focus on education through a child sponsorship program,” said Jean. “He showed us a rural school in Migyera that begged improvements and I immediately said, ‘Yes.’ Yes we’ll do this.”
Jean and Dave returned to New Jersey. By early 2007, they launched a 501(c) 3 non-profit charity Change A Life Uganda (CALU) with a vision of educated, healthy, and empowered Ugandan children as agents of positive social and economic change. They formed a Board of Directors and began to develop educational material with logo and photographs.
“Immediately, we began a process of speaking to small groups in friends’ homes where we described the conditions in rural Uganda and invited individuals to sponsor a child’s education from primary school through university education or trade school,” Jean said. “Soon friends began to sponsor students by donating money to underwrite school tuition and other expenses. We were on our way!”
Educational gatherings spread to schools, organizations, Friends Receptions, and outreach to foundations and corporations. Everyone wanted to help. An attendee at one gathering, who owned a design/consulting firm, offered to develop our educational materials gratis. Another, an IT specialist, offered to develop our website.
Thanks to generous support from many individuals, groups, schoolchildren, foundations and corporate matching gifts, CALU accomplished extraordinary goals.
- CALU made improvements at the small St. Lawrence Primary School in rural Migyera, including upgrades to classrooms, new computers, new classrooms, teacher housing, cafeteria, outside landscaping for curb appeal, and a dormitory so students could concentrate on their studies. Donations helped to increase teacher salaries and added new teachers, texts, and school supplies. A group from Ireland donated computers. The school grew from 90 students with four teachers, to 600 students with 20 teachers. The school ranks number two in its district and 325 of its students have graduated from post-secondary programs or universities.
- In 2012 CALU opened the St. Francis Health Center, the first health care facility a stone’s throw from the school. It provides safe, reliable inpatient and outpatient adult and pediatric primary care services, and health education. The program addresses local health issues such as clean water, sanitation, HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria, diarrhea, and various respiratory diseases, pre-natal and obstetric care.
Access to Clean Water
- CALU drilled for water and constructed a 512-foot well and a 50,000-pound water tower providing clean water for the school, health center and village. It is now a self-sustaining water company.
Adult Literacy Program
- CALU launched an adult literacy program in 2 central Ugandan villages in 2013, expanded to 9 villages in 2018, and to one northern village. Seventy-five percent of the adult students are women.
- CALU offered microfinance loans to women to assist them in creating tailoring or crafts businesses, and a Funds for Farming program to school children. Thanks to women from the Colts Neck Reformed Church (NJ) who donated Singer Sewing Machines, women have increased family income with designs of new apparel and repairs to worn clothing. At least 150 children participate in the microenterprise projects raising farm animals for sale to families seeking hens or goats. Increased family income has helped raise the standard of living and business experience.
Asked to describe the impact CALU has had on rural Uganda, Jean says “it has been significant.” She lists the many accomplishments:
- The Functional Adult Education Program educates adults to speak, read and write English – the official national language of Uganda – and to use numbers. The adults, mostly women, have become confident and self-reliant. They are proud they can speak English, sign their name, open a bank account, read their children’s report card, start a business and maintain financial independence and economic stability.
- Prostitution as a source of income for women and teenage girls participating in our program has decreased.
- People were dying of AIDS when we began. With HIV medication available at our health center, the death rate and HIV-related illnesses have drastically decreased.
- Education has provided bright futures for many children who would never have had a chance to go to school without our sponsorship program.
- Teachers received a higher salary, housing, medical care, professional development and classroom supplies
- When we first started the water available to the community was from dug out holes in the ground collecting rainwater. It was muddy and unsanitary which caused illness such as typhoid, dysentery. Two students drowned when filling their water cans. The water system CALU has built changed the community. New businesses opened including two hotels. Families had clean water to drink and were not getting sick from water related illnesses. The health center had access to clean water to wash newborns, mothers and other patients and to maintain the cleanliness of the facility.
“The people of Uganda remain extremely grateful to CALU for its help in educating their children, providing clean water to homes, the school and health center for drinking, cooking and sanitation, the new health center, and microfinance programs that have made them more self-sufficient.”
At the dedication of the health center in 2012, the ceremony included speeches by the local bishop, some politicians, and Jean. The last person to speak was a father representing the villagers. He expressed gratitude for the beautiful facility and the relief the families no longer will lose their children to malaria. Then he said: “But we just can’t understand why people we don’t even know from a place called New Jersey would do this for us.”
Today Jean believes she has realized her life-long dream to help the needy children and families of Africa. “I honestly don’t think CALU would have happened without the inspiration of the Sisters of Charity in school and when I was a member of the congregation. The desire in me was so strong. I know now it was a Vincentian call to do what was needed. It also was a Vincentian voice that kept Dave and me and our many supporters committed to the CALU mission. I feel blessed that St. Vincent chose me.”
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