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Wednesday, Sept. 24, 2008

Grandmothers Beyond Borders Offers Support

Milwaukee-based charity promotes social change in Uganda

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Amy Peterson, a Milwaukee resident who works for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, encountered a country crippled by heartache and despair when she made her first trip to Uganda in 2006.

Skyrocketing HIV infection rates were ravaging Ugandan families, often leaving orphaned children in the care of their grandmothers. It is estimated that grandmothers care for 45% of Uganda’s orphan population. Poverty, poor infrastructure and lack of basic medical care have placed an overwhelming burden on these grandmothers, who are forced to begin parenthood all over again.

Peterson said she had an inkling of the difficulties facing Ugandan grandmothers prior to her initial visit, since they’re what drove her to visit the East African nation in the first place. But she was seeking out one grandmother in particular, one she knew only as “Mary.”

Peterson heard Mary’s story during an interview with National Public Radio in 2006, in which she recounted the isolation she felt as she raised her grandchildren. Mary had buried all of her 14 children and had to raise 10 grandchildren by herself.

After Peterson heard the interview, she called Janine Arseneau, a Milwaukee resident and social worker. “Mary came to represent a sort of universal grandmother, universal elder,” Arseneau said.

Peterson was so moved by Mary’s story that she decided to travel to Uganda with her daughter, Sarah Walls, and find Mary. “We didn’t know anything about the lives of the grandmothers directly, only from Mary’s story, so we needed to go, listen and learn,” Peterson said.

Some of Peterson’s friends had previously worked in Africa, and they were able to provide her with connections in Uganda.

“The original plan [was] to find Mary and let her know she wasn’t alone in the world and that I heard her story,” Peterson said. “Unfortunately, we were unable to locate her.”

In time, the emotional connection Peterson felt to Mary was eventually transferred to Uganda as a whole. Both Peterson and Arseneau said they knew that something needed to be done.

Returning from Uganda in May 2006, Peterson, along with Arseneau, founded Grandmothers Beyond Borders. Based in Milwaukee, the charity seeks to help Ugandan grandmothers cope with the dire task of raising their orphaned grandchildren. Along with Caritas, a Catholic charity, Grandmothers Beyond Borders now works in four Ugandan villages to help create “Old Women’s Associations.” No longer forced to struggle alone, these grandmothers can work together to improve their lives and situations.

“The women we had visited in the first year—who had lived isolated, alone and in terrible poverty—had come together collectively to support one another and begin to define their problems and strategies to improve their situation,” Peterson said. Where there was once hopelessness and isolation, Peterson and Arseneau are now seeing hope and community.

“We see ourselves as agents of social change, supporting women in societies where women carry most of the burdens,” Peterson said. “Our dream is to keep engaging new people to help with our efforts to continue to share [these] stories of tremendous courage against tremendous odds.” The charity has raised $58,000 since 2006. For more information, including details of a Nov. 1 fund-raiser, visit their Web site: www.grandmothersbeyond.org.

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Photos by Sarah Walls