By LEIGH C. MERRIFIELD
News & Journal Editor

WATOTO CHILDREN’S CHOIR

The Watoto Children’s Choir, a group of 18 orphans (ages 8-12) from Uganda, is in the midst of a six-month tour of the U.S., and next Thursday, June 1st, they will be visiting Clarksburg Baptist Church for a 7 p.m. performance.  The children will offer their new production titled “Signs & Wonders”; their performance is free and open to the public.

Andy Walker, Director of Worship and Communications at Clarksburg Baptist Church, noted that this is not the first time they have hosted the Watoto Children’s Choir.

“They visited us in 2009 and again in 2011, and we are happy to welcome them back!” he stated.  “Typically, they draw a capacity crowd – not just from our own church, but from the entire area.  They are an energetic young group, and they exhibit big smiles on their faces despite the hardships they have endured.  It is always quite a worshipful evening.”

Valerie Hulme, a parishioner at Clarksburg Baptist Church, knows first-hand about the trials these children have suffered because she volunteered there while a college student.  She spoke of her summer there, describing it as a wonderful experience and an opportunity to get involved in this ministry in Uganda.

“It was actually a couple from the United States who went to Uganda to plan a church.  When they saw how many children didn’t have families, they recalled the scripture (James 1:27) that encourages Christians to look after orphans and widows in distress, and this organization evolved.  It got started in 1994 with different programs developing and later the creation of the Watoto Villages.  They searched for kids who were orphaned and neglected and found a way to give them hope and to help them be self-sufficient through this ministry,” Valerie explained.

She recalls seeing a film about Uganda in 2006 that highlighted the war going on there.  “Children were abducted and used as soldiers in that war; some were left orphaned in the streets.  Some had lost their parents due to illness.  It captured my heart and I felt called to go and meet them and do something to make a difference,” she said.

The Watoto Child Care Ministry, Inc., an international holistic care program, was initiated in response to the overwhelming number of orphaned and vulnerable children and women in Uganda.  The model involves physical care, medical intervention, formal and vocational education, counseling, and moral and spiritual discipleship.  This ministry has cared for more than 4,000 children since it was established in 1994, and there are still over 3,000 currently receiving care.

‘Baby Watoto’ is another feature of the ministry, which gives care to children from newborn to two years of age.  “Some of these babies are born prematurely and receive the best of care at Baby Watoto, which is where I volunteered,” Valerie explained.  “Some of them have disabilities … and in some instances, they may have parents, but the parents take them to Baby Watoto because they know they will get better care there.”

One premature infant, for example, was abandoned at a hospital in Kamala.  She spent her first weeks in critical care at Baby Watoto, and thanks to the care she received, she is now a healthy eight-year-old who tours with the choir!

And then there are the older children who live in the Watoto Villages.  Valerie described the village setting with houses positioned in a circular fashion with 7-9 houses in a cluster.  “There are a dozen or so of those groups of homes in each village, and each village has its own school and clinic.  There are eight children per household who are supervised by an adoptive mother figure.  It is a loving family environment; they call her ‘mom’ and although they are not biologically related, the children consider themselves ‘siblings’,” she noted.   “This is how the mother figure earns a living – caring for these kids – and it helps her to sustain herself.”

Valerie said the goal is to help the children become self-sufficient and turn them into young adults who can provide for themselves.  Another objective is that they will have a better chance in life … reach their potential … become role models and good examples … and perhaps someday change the entire situation in their country.

“They graduate high school, find skills they are good at so they can contribute to society … or they may continue with their education.  Some have gone on to become farmers, scientists, lawyers, doctors, nurses, etc.  And some have stayed within the organization to become mentors to others.  It is interesting that many stick around to influence someone else who is confronting the same life situations that they confronted,” she added.

Valerie still stays in contact with some of the children she met there in 2008.  “I was particularly drawn to one infant at Baby Watoto.  He had been abused by his parents and had serious digestive problems and needed surgery.  I e-mailed pictures of him and told his story to people back home.  Donations were received and a year later he was able to have his surgery and is doing well now.  I continue to sponsor him for $39 a month and we mail one another back and forth.  He is approaching his 12th birthday now and wants to be a pilot.  I hope that one day I will get to see him again!” she continued.

Valerie describes the Watoto Children’s Choir as a group of children who now have hope!  “They have amazing voices and are wonderful dancers.  They have a talent that they share with the world and they put a lot of work into what they do.  Some will share their stories during a portion of the concert … tell how Watoto has changed them … and what they dream of being one day.  They may also have things on display and for sale that the women of Watoto have made.  Information on sponsoring a child will also be available if anyone is interested.  I encourage everyone to come see them and hear them.  It is truly inspiring!  After enduring some very tough times, the genuine joy and hope they have challenges us to think more carefully about all the meager things we complain about,” she concluded.

Again, the Watoto Children’s Choir will perform Thursday, June 1st a 7 p.m. at Clarksburg Baptist Church, located at 501 W. Pike St. (corner of 6th and Pike) in downtown Clarksburg.  There is plenty of parking and the concert is FREE and open to the public.  Their worship songs communicate the hope that God has instilled in their lives via the Watoto ministry.