By Jonathan Phelps
---- — MARBLEHEAD — Growing up in Marblehead, Kevin Schwartz knew he was lucky. But he didn’t realize just how lucky he was until he reached medical school and began talking with his roommate.
While Schwartz was enjoying life in seaside Marblehead, in a comfortable single-family home with a brother and sister, Fred Oola was living in the squalor of a displaced persons camp in Uganda, which had been embroiled in a two-decades-long civil war. Schwartz attended the private Pingree School in Hamilton, graduating in 1996 with a top-notch education. Oola was able to get an education because an Italian missionary paid for him to attend a boarding school, which opened the door for him to become a doctor.
The two roommates met at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester.
They bonded, talking a lot about their different upbringings.
“I had a lot of opportunity growing up in the United States, and I feel like I could have been born in a displaced persons camp in Uganda with so few opportunities,” Schwarz said. “I always wanted to help even out some of the unfairness.”
As for Oola, “he wanted to give the same opportunity he received to other kids,” Schwartz said.
While they were still in medical school, they decided to start The Child is Innocent, a nonprofit organization that works to educate children and develop leaders in Northern Uganda. The organization was launched in 2004.
Tonight, the organization will hold a fundraiser from 6:30 to 9 at the Pingree School library, 537 Highland St., Hamilton. The event will feature African music and a recently filmed documentary on the organization. All proceeds will go directly to the organization.
The conflict between the Ugandan government and the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army was fought for more than 20 years, mostly in northern Uganda, and was once called “the most forgotten, worst humanitarian crisis in the world” by the United Nations, according to the organization. Millions have been displaced and thousands killed during the conflict. While the region is safer now, the effects of war still remain.
The concept of The Child is Innocent is simple. As the U.S. executive director, Schwartz, 34, finds families here in the States willing to sponsor students financially, while Oola recruits promising students in Uganda to receive the scholarships.
Schwartz said the organization started with 13 students in 2004 and has grown to about 130 kids now. Education and leadership development is important because much of the northern part of Uganda needs to be rebuilt after two decades of war. Most people at the camps also missed out on any sort of educational opportunity, Schwartz said.
“We felt like the people to take responsibility and best suited to lead the rebuilding and development were northern Ugandans themselves,” he said.
Nancy Wayne of Marblehead has been supporting the organization for the past six years because it provides the students a safe and healthy place to learn.
“My husband and I believe very strongly in education as a vehicle to give children the opportunities to realize their potential,” she said.
As part of the sponsorship, donors receive letters and report cards from their students in Uganda, and they can write letters to them.
“It is not just about giving money and hoping it goes well,” Wayne said. “You get feedback from the students. Even though we are so many miles apart, we still have that connection.”
Schwartz now lives in Boston and works as a pediatric emergency physician at Boston Medical Center. He goes to Uganda every year or two to do medical work and to visit the children in the program. Much of his role for the organization is to recruit and raise money, but he also helps develop some of the leadership curriculum.
Schwartz said six graduates of the program now attend college and 15 students are in the process of applying for college.
“My hope,” he said, “is we’ll continue to graduate community leaders and the children will come to help rebuild and improve the lives of their families and neighbors.”