by Allison O’Leary
A picture of two girls sits on my desk. One is a smiley teenager with long braids. The other is small with soulful eyes.They stand, smiling, next to a building in a clearing of the jungle, in matching green uniforms.This picture is of my surrogate sister, Immaculate, and my surrogate daughter, Grace.
In 2012, my family began to sponsor ten-year-old Ayiyo Immaculate, a girl from Uganda’s Ssese Islands. While my family paid for Immaculate’s school fees and home care, Immaculate and I wrote letters of encouragement and love to one another for four years. In 2016, my mother and I visited Immaculate at her home, which she shared with 40 other girls. That next summer I went back for a month to help at the shelter and teach English and reading at the local primary school. It was there I met Namabira Grace, a tiny ten-year-old girl who seemed to be in a dire living situation. I connected with Grace, just as I had with Immaculate. Before long, I asked the headmaster of the school if I could sponsor Grace with my own money. My last day in my teaching job, Grace gave me a wrinkled slip of paper with her slanted writing on it. My mother, I wish you luck with your studies, I want you to become a winner. When I left Uganda, I felt that I was missing a part of myself. I realized that what my girls contributed to my life was far more than what I gave to them.
Immaculate and Grace have taught me responsibility and maturity. It has changed me as a person to know that they depend on me. Our relationship goes beyond school and home fees now; I genuinely think of them as family. It is hard to keep in contact with them, but I try to encourage them to study hard and know their worth and value. Grace wants to be a teacher, and Immaculate is studying to become a businesswoman.
They have also taught me compassion beyond what I thought I was capable of. Because of Immaculate and Grace, I have a strong passion for helping others, especially girls like them. The Ugandan girls I have met are some of the most courageous people I know. These women have been through extremely difficult times and have faced bigotry, strife, and danger with their heads held high. I aspire to be like them and set a good example in terms of strength, leadership and kindness. My dream is to start a nonprofit organization for girls in Uganda, to give them a safe home and educational opportunities. It terrifies me that I cannot always protect Immaculate and Grace from the dangers and trauma that are so prevalent in their country. However, the smiles I see on my girls’ faces fill me with a sense of purpose and confidence to make a difference in the world for women. I have great hopes that my sister and daughter, and their children after them, can come of age in a safe environment surrounded by strong, educated women. My tiny family feels spread thin over 8,000 miles, but someday, we will all be together again. Until then, I will work on educating myself so I can become the best possible leader. For my girls, I will become a winner so I can change their lives as they have changed mine.
Allison O’Leary has lived in Anchorage, Alaska her whole life, though she loves traveling. She is an Early Honors student with dreams of running her own nonprofit in the future. She loves Bruce Springsteen, cooking, hiking, and poetry. Her family is from Ireland.