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Oppenheim: Vermonters In Uganda

In the hills of Entebbe, the sound of children’s voices fill a courtyard between a compound of small buildings. Now and then, a lanky man with a short pony-tail emerges. He is Robert Fleming, the founder of Malayaka House, currently home to 39 children, ranging in age from infancy to late teens.

Fleming may be one of the most interesting people I’ve ever met. A native Californian, he worked at St. Michael’s College in the early 2000’s as the coach of the men’s tennis team. Back then, he had yet to find his life’s mission – and it kind of came upon him accidentally. While doing non-profit service work in Uganda, a place where he had no plan to stay, he came across a woman, profoundly ill and about to give birth.

That woman’s daughter, just born, would have become parentless, a common story in a country that’s struggled with poverty, war and AIDS. So - faced with a crisis, Fleming began making connections – and ultimately created a safe place to stay, at first, for one child. Her name was – and is – Malayaka.

Malayaka, now a smiling 12 year old, is the namesake of an orphanage that gives Ugandan children the advantages that come with nurturing, education and safety. We are a group of 12, the fourth from Champlain College to come here in the last few years, in part due to personal connections Fleming has in Vermont. Our job: help out in any way we can, and because the children are on school break, Fleming emphasizes the best thing we can do is play with them, read to them, keep them occupied. The kids call us Uncle or Auntie; we’ve immediately joined a community of caretakers.

There are powerful moments. I see hope for children who might otherwise be victims. I see young American students engage in service, and understand, the meaning of what Robert Fleming has accomplished.

And here’s a bit of irony. Fleming tells us, with a straight face, he never wanted children, as in, the biological kind. It’s a funny thing to hear from a man who has created such a big family.

Keith Oppenheim, Associate Professor in Broadcast Media Production at Champlain College, has been with the college since 2014. Prior to that, he coordinated the broadcasting program at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Michigan (near Grand Rapids). Keith was a correspondent for CNN for 11 years and worked as a television news reporter in Providence, Scranton, Sacramento and Detroit. He produces documentaries, and his latest project, Noyana - Singing at the end of life, tells the story of a Vermont choir that sings to hospice patients.
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