Retiring in 2002 from being a manager with state government, I knew I wanted to be of service and work internationally in my next phase of life. My lifelong wanderlust had developed into a fascination with other cultures and what made people both similar and unique. In 2005 I traveled to Iran and Syria with a small citizen diplomacy group. Our mission was to let government officials and everyday citizens know that—contrary to our government at the time—not all Americans considered them the “axis of evil”. My eyes became opened to the many ways we can voice our opinion and be heard in places where it matters most.
At the same time, I was studying with environmental activist and Buddhist scholar Joanna Macy. Through her teachings I learned that activism takes many forms. Important as “holding actions” are, they are only one approach to being an activist and making change possible.
A few months later I fulfilled my childhood dream of visiting Africa. Preferring travel with a purpose, I took a photo workshop in Uganda where I documented the lives of street children. Through that experience I met 20-year-old Ronnie Sseruyange, who had become a street kid at age 6. For the next ten years he lived with other children on the streets of Kampala, foraging for food during the day and hiding from police at night.
When we first met Ronnie was off the street, teaching himself English and routinely counseling homeless children. We bonded and I became his “Jajja” (grandparent in the local language). I decided to do what I could to help Ronnie fulfill his life’s dream—helping other children who struggled as he had. Despite no normal family life or formal schooling, Ronnie understood the importance of a home environment and education.
Ronnie and I have collaborated on various projects over the years while learning about each others' customs and norms, and also learning to trust each other despite our different backgrounds and ages. The learning never stops, and I feel great joy in being regularly connected to a people and place so different from my own.
We now have Jajja’s Kids, a nonprofit organization in the US that supports -- with both money and love -- Ronnie’s Ugandan organization Jajja’s Kids – Africa. We are beginning our fourth year renting a home for seventeen boys, ages 5 to 16, who were street kids and now live as a family under the supervision of Ronnie and staff. Each boy attends school, and for the first time in his life Ronnie also attends school—an adult diploma program.
Jajja’s Kids’ goal this year is to establish education sponsorships for each boy. Long-term we plan to acquire land to create a permanent home and farm for both boys and girls to live together, attend school and learn farming skills.
Giving Ugandan children the chance for a better future also serves to “give back” to people in the US. We annually hold lively Skype sessions between our boys and 2nd graders in New York. And each year volunteers spend two weeks with me in Uganda, working with Ronnie, our boys and the surrounding community. For those who have never experienced a third world country, I guarantee them it will be a life-changing experience—as visiting Uganda certainly was for me!
How Did Diane Reiner Do It? The managerial skills Diane developed over decades working for state government found new purpose in running a nonprofit organization. While she lives in upstate New York, Diane has one foot in Japan where her son and his family live, and the other foot in Uganda, with her "adopted" son Ronnie and his boys. Traveling in both directions feeds her nomadic yearnings, and she is grateful for the twists and turns her life has taken.
WHAT CAN YOU DO?
Please visit JajjasKids.org for more information about this project