Cincy Chic: Tell me about the impetus for starting Unified for Unifat (U4U).
Connie Ring, co-director of U4U: What happened is about six years ago I was a teacher at Moeller High School. My students were going to a leadership conference at the University of Cincinnati, and they needed a chaperone, so I agreed to go. So, I went, and in the afternoon, they had breakout sessions and we were allowed to choose. One of them was about Africa and I had some interest in that, so we saw this movie that told us all about the kids in Uganda being turned into child soldiers and sold into sexual slavery. At the time, my daughter was five. I just pictured my daughter walking alone, and it just ripped me up.
When we got back to the school the next day, the students found me and said, "We have to do something about this." So, we got involved with this organization in California and raised a couple thousand dollars. Consequently, an article was written about us in the Moeller Magazine. This guy who graduated in 1967 saw the article, and he was good friends with a woman who had started a school called Unifat in Uganda 20 years before this to help the kids. He felt strongly that we should meet this woman. By the time she came to Cincinnati, these three students became 40 from four other schools as well. The kids immediately united, creating the name Unified for Unifat, and that was six years ago.
And now, we’re sponsoring 133 kids with four mentors. Our budget is $70,000 a year, all raised by high school and college students. I used to say I was just in the right place at the right time, over and over again. I think some people call it fate, some call it divine intervention. I think everyone has a choice to pay attention anytime they want to. My students and I just chose to pay attention over and over again.
These kids are amazing. We’re really at a cracking point right now. We just got our nonprofit status in May. We used to just have one branch, but now that we have our 501c3 status, we need to really do the right things for these students. One of the original students has graduated from college, and he’s living in Gulu – he’s the co-director now. He’s our first American liaison living over there. We have 18 active chapters, and chapters are popping up around the country.
Cincy Chic: What is your long-term goal in terms of U4U?
Ring: It’s two-fold. We want to sponsor 133 kids, and we are committeed to getting every one of these kids through secondary school. Unifat is a primary school, then students go into secondary schools in and around Gulu. Unifat takes our funding and distributes it to secondary schools, too. We have to find additional sponsorships every year, because secondary school is double the price of primary school, as tuition covers room and board. We have to find a second sponsor for every one of the kids who is going to secondary school.
Another one of our big goals is to find some opportunity for them to be self-sustainable, finding a donor or foundation to open an internet café on the school grounds. If we built a building and we got funding to buy 10 to 15 computers, an internet café would be super, super profitable, but they don’t have enough money to do it yet.
Cincy Chic: How was getting the support of people in the surrounding areas?
Ring: They were really excited to work with us from the beginning, but even saying that, first impressions can sometimes be wrong. Let me equate that to you meeting your freshman roommate for the first time. You live together for a while and realize there are some things about these people you don’t like. We started out in a honeymoon phase, and that never left.
Abitimo [the founder of Unifat] and I are partners. Period. Our philosophy strongly is that no one knows what the problems are like they do. When you walk in with that in mind, you have to create a partnership. It’s just organic. We don’t use the phone much, because Skype is free. Because of that, there’s no lack of understanding between us. Because the philosophy from the get-go was not that we’re going to come in and save the day, the relationship has been great. They’re family to me. When I go over there, that’s my second home.
Cincy Chic: Do you think similar programs could be used to combat the achievement gap and income inequality in America?
Ring: I really do. The formula is not difficult, I don’t think. the way we have it defined. Passion is definitely a piece to the recipe. All the kids involved in the foundation have passion, and that can happen here just like there. Good, clear education is essential. When I say "education," I mean that you take the time to educate yourself about whatever you’re passionate about. And then, a willingness to commit time to it needs to be there. I think really that’s the recipe, and all those things can happen anywhere. I definitely think it can be repeated.
Cincy Chic: How do you hope to expand U4U in the future?
Ring: We expand every year. Every year we have more chapters than the year before. Mostly the way that happens is that for the past four years, we’ve been presenting at that leadership conference at which we first got started. Word-of-mouth is also huge. When students become passionate about something, they want to share that. A lot of that is because kids are the best advertisement ever. Social networking: That’s how kids communicate, so that’s their mode of communication, but word-ofmouth has been huge for us. With the way we really need to grow, my hope is that we can tap into more adults. We will, of course keep, our student grassroots movement, but we also need to open up this new branch with more adult and corporate involvement.