A Rotarian leads the charge to help Sudanese refugees
In his 35+ years as a Rotarian, Dean Valente has been involved in his fair share of community projects. Among them is the Rotary Tot Lot in the town of Grosse Pointe, which he helped renovate not once, but twice.
Last March, after listening to Grosse Pointe North High School graduate Sarah Warnez introduce the Rotary Club of Grosse Pointe to South Sudanese leadership and community development, Valente decided to embark on her first international Rotary effort. .
SSLCD is a Grand Rapids-based 501(c)3 that promotes the health and well-being of South Sudanese villagers in northern Uganda by empowering women, promoting economic development, and training leaders to sustain the peace.
“Sarah came and spoke and it touched me,” Valente said. “It really opened my eyes and struck a chord with me.”
As an international organization, Rotary has been involved in efforts around the world, including water purification, teaching Ugandan girls about menstruation and sanitary health, among other projects. Rotary District 6400, which includes southeastern Michigan and southwestern Ontario, has earned a reputation as a “super district,” Valente said, because of its many efforts. As such, he decided to reach out to other Rotary clubs to support the SSLCD.
“After hearing about the program, I got in touch with John Musick, current president of SSLCD,” Valente said. “Sarah, myself and John have been making appearances at neighborhood clubs. Using Zoom or written presentations, we presented to all clubs in the district. This was as much a fundraising effort as it was an outreach effort to educate people about the situation in South Sudan.
The situation includes 1.25 million South Sudanese living in exile outside the country, Valente said. This is a situation that has been going on for almost 20 years.
“The two camps we support are in northern Uganda,” he said. “There are 15,000 to 20,000 people living in these two camps. They live in thatched-roof huts, without electricity or water. They use communal latrines.
It has been almost a year since Valente began its outreach efforts. Many clubs made donations, including a matching grant from District 6400, totaling over $20,000. A large part of the funds will be used for agricultural and water projects, as well as for the reconstruction of latrines, the purchase of livestock and the rental of fields for crops.
Another part will be used for education and empowerment programs for women and girls, as well as for conflict resolution and peacebuilding support.
“We try to help them help themselves to reframe their existence,” Valente said.
A third tranche of funds will help create local businesses and businesses, he added.
“A kind of savings and loan, for lack of a better term, within the camps,” he said. “We hope they will create financial resources to help in the camps and develop business opportunities for themselves.”
Valente also noted that he hopes the funds can be used to strengthen relationships between refugee camps and surrounding communities.
“I pay tribute to Uganda for its willingness to take in so many refugees,” he said. “Residents don’t always appreciate having refugees in their yard. COVID has also caused problems. The two camps we work with are located a few kilometers from a large village. Our hope is that part of the programming fund will be used to build bridges between the camps and the local community. We hope they can find ways to open dialogues and build momentum that avoids violence as a way to resolve conflict.
Conflict resolution programs have been supported by Rotary International for years, he added.
“I tip my hat to the Ugandan government and the people who have made room in their hearts to deal with it,” he said. “And if we can help out a bit, that’s great.”
Valente said he took on the project because he couldn’t understand the idea of being moved from his house.
“Refugees have been so displaced for years,” he said. “These camps have been around for about 10 or 15 years; it is their life. Men from these camps constantly return to South Sudan to see if there is still fighting or if they can find work to support their families. They live in a constant state of flux. I couldn’t imagine that.
“Suffering is everywhere,” he added. “Rotary is helping to try to tone it down a bit.
“They may or may not realize it’s Rotary. It’s great if they do. I just hope one day the kids will pay up and do something nice for someone else.
Valente is still accepting donations to help South Sudanese community learning and development. Checks, made payable to Grosse Pointe Rotary Foundation and mentioning SSLCD, can be mailed to PO Box 36366, Grosse Pointe Farms, MI 48236.
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