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ND alumni embrace challenges in Africa

Marcela Berrios | Tuesday, January 23, 2007

As a primary school teacher in Uganda, Matt Young had to quickly learn how to fight away the snakes and tailor his syllabus to fit the needs of his students – even if it included teaching children how to empty pit latrines and avoid contracting malaria.

“Many of the things I teach these kids would never be on a syllabus in the [United] States,” said Young, who graduated from Notre Dame last spring. “In science class for instance, I teach how to tend to cattle, goats and chickens.

“Other topics are how to avoid getting tapeworms … and different methods to prevent malaria and AIDS.”

Young and fellow 2006 alumnus Clay Allison recently met with University President Father John Jenkins and other Notre Dame representatives during the group’s weeklong trip to Uganda. Both work at the African St. Jude Primary School and Lakeview Secondary School.

The Observer was unable to contact Allison, however, as he was recovering from a bout of malaria.

Before Young graduated, he thought his teaching career would involve lessons about multiplication and grammar, not battling mosquitoes and bats in the classroom. But while certain lessons “aren’t very exciting,” he said, “they are quite relevant for these kids” – children who spend afternoons caring for siblings and their family’s livestock and crops.

When teaching children who cannot afford pencils, Young said every lesson becomes “a slow and tedious process.”

“There are many other obstacles to learning that are quite unique here also,” Young said. “During the rainy seasons, it gets too muddy for many of the kids to walk to school, and during the dry seasons, the classrooms become like saunas, which makes learning pretty difficult.

“If it rains during class, the noise of the rain hitting the tin roof makes it impossible to hear.”

Many times the children also go to school with empty stomachs, Young said, limiting their ability to concentrate. But he finds their determination and optimism admirable.

“They have a passion for learning that leaves me in awe,” he said.

A small number of the kids who live too far away to walk each day board at the school each night, and Young sometimes joins them as they sleep on the classroom floor.

As he works to ensure the children study different things from school and prepare for bed, he listens “to the mosquitoes, rats and bats” around him – an experience that gives him “a little glimpse into these kids’ lives.”

“This is their daily reality: not seeing their parents, struggling to overcome the obstacles and hoping against all odds that they can have a brighter future,” Young said. “As I walk around the next day, delirious from my lack of sleep, these kids are as bright and cheery as ever.

“Although I am their teacher, I have found myself being the student more often than not.”

Young also aids Africa through Kilimanjaro for Kids – a fundraising effort he began with fellow 2006 graduate Tony Steier to raise awareness and sponsor educational projects in Uganda.

Young said he initially became interested in Africa while living in Sorin College, which sponsored St. Jude Primary School.

“It is easy to sit back and say ‘the things that are going on over there are so terrible.’

That, however, doesn’t make a dent in the problem,” he said. “Living with and for these people is how I decided to make my impact.”

Young said he was unable to pinpoint an exact moment during his time in school that drew him to Uganda, but he was certain that “the person Notre Dame molded [him] into and the values it helped instill in [him]” led him down that path.

He will remain in Uganda for a year and a half, but hopes he will get the chance to stay longer.

Each morning Young finds inspiration from a fellow Notre Dame missionary, Tom Dooley, whose personal contributions to the medical corps in Southeast Asia in the late 1950s inspired Young to become involved in Uganda.

He taped Dooley’s words to his door: “I am only one, but I am one. I cannot do everything, but I can do something.

“What I can do, I ought to do, and what I ought to do, by the grace of God, I will do.”