as seen in The Burlington Free Press

December 9, 2008

Rice students TOUCH Uganda

By Mariana Lamaison Sears

SOUTH BURLINGTON — Michelle Clark had heard many stories of children suffering in Africa and always asked herself the same question: “How can you help?”

She found an answer in the most unexpected place: her high school digital imaging class.

With her classmate Corey Clark —no relation — the Rice Memorial High School senior has been working for almost a year on a documentary film about TOUCH Uganda, a Burlington-based nonprofit that financially supports the pediatric unit of a community hospital in remote southwestern Uganda, near the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Through what began as a class project and continued over the summer almost as a part-time volunteer job, the 17-year-old students learned much more than post-production film editing, they said on a recent morning at the digital imaging lab. They learned that a doctor can hang an IV from the branch of a tree, that pocket change can actually save an African kid from malaria and that films have the potential to make a difference.

“When you see it in a film, it really impacts you,” Corey Clark said.

“You really want to do something now,” Michelle Clark said. “They really have nothing.”

The amateur editors were stunned by the images from two outdated films they were given to compile to create the new one, they said. Through the old footage, the students became familiar with the Bwindi Community Hospital and its people, the homeless Batwa Pygmies, displaced from their land when it became a national park.

With the skills learned in the class and the guidance of teacher Vinny Spagnolo, they now tell a new story: How a group of Chittenden County residents became involved to help save children in one of the poorest, isolated regions of the world.

Community and classroom

TOUCH Uganda was born in 2006 after Shelburne residents Sheila Morrissey and Kris Owens united to raise money for an orphanage in Entebbe, one of Uganda’s main cities, said Morrissey, president of the organization. Touched by the pictures of babies and young children fighting disease, malnutrition and extreme poverty, the women gathered a board of committed people and created their own organization. From the beginning they agreed to engage young people in their cause.

“We believe in the strength of our youth to get the word out and bring awareness to their own generation when it comes to global poverty,” Morrissey said.

With that in mind, they knocked on the door of Spagnolo’s digital imaging class at Rice asking for volunteers to work on the documentary project.

Spagnolo, who created the Digital Multimedia program at Rice, in which students learn graphic design, photography, film and publication layout, said the idea matched the goals of his class.

“We run the class like a business. No text books, all from experience,” he said. Students work with people in the community on real-world projects gaining real-world experience, he said.

“You really need to think outside the box,” Michelle Clark said describing the class. Editing a film so that it tells a story is very different than simply writing the story, she said. Corey Clark said that it takes a lot of time to put together a film, as you have to simultaneously manage clips, audio and pictures; especially when you are merging two films into one.

The need is now

Corey Clark and Michelle Clark want their film to inspire others the same way they have beeninspired. It is now, near the end of their project, when the students say the need is greatest.

TOUCH Uganda committed to cover the annual operating cost of the Bwindi hospital pediatric unit — roughly $58,000 — and as it struggles to raise money in hard economic times, it encounters a new challenge. Owens said recent attacks in a nearby Congolese village have sent an influx of people over the Ugandan border seeking safety. “The director of the hospital has set up an emergency outreach clinic and refugee camp to accommodate and treat the incoming refugees, the majority of whom are children 5 and under, arriving tired, frightened and suffering from varying degrees of illness and malnutrition,” Owens said in a news release.

While doctors and nurses work to help these children, and TOUCH Uganda raises the money to make that possible, Corey Clark and Michelle Clark are working to tell the world the story.

For more information on TOUCH Uganda, visit