St. Anthony Park resident Karen Lilley huddled in her kitchen during one of those double-digit below-zero days in January, reflecting on her recent trip to the Blue House, a residence for orphan girls in rural Kazo, Uganda. The memories warmed her heart and brought tears to her eyes.
For more than 10 years, Lilley has served as webmaster and board member for Hope Multipurpose Inc. and the Blue House in St. Paul. December 2013 marked her first trip to the East African country.
The Blue House story reads like a Lifetime movie script: Beatrice Garubanda, her husband, James, and their young children moved to St. Paul from their native Uganda in 1987 so James could attend the University of Minnesota. Beatrice, who was a teacher and childcare worker, also continued her education at Luther Seminary.
In 2001, Beatrice Garubanda returned to Uganda and visited Kazo, where she was stunned by the number of children whose immediate families had been decimated in the HIV/AIDS pandemic. It is estimated that 2.2 million children have lost one or both parents in Uganda to AIDS.
In Kazo, Garubanda saw caregivers in charge of 20 or more children or children who headed households, and she became particularly concerned about the fate of the orphaned girls. Without adequate nutrition, shelter, clothing, healthcare and education—much less, caring adults—the girls faced a dire future. Garubanda wanted to establish a home for girls to give them a safe childhood and help them learn life skills, attend school and, later, contribute to their society.
Upon returning to St. Paul, she promoted her idea and garnered enough people and funds to purchase living quarters for the girls. In 2004, she established the 501(c)(3) Hope Multipurpose Inc. (HMI), a nonprofit in St. Paul and a nongovernmental organization (NGO) in Uganda to operate the home. Initially, the residence housed about a dozen girls and one housemother. It was named the Blue House because “blue,” for Beatrice, was the color of hope.
Just a year after the organization was established, Garubanda died at age 49 of a heart attack.
Yet the story did not end there. In fact, it was just beginning.
Karen Lilley met Garubanda in the late 1980s.
“Many people in St. Anthony Park knew Beatrice and her family since Beatrice attended Luther Seminary, St. Anthony Park Lutheran [Church] and St. Matthew’s [Episcopalian Church],” Lilley said. “Beatrice did childcare for my son for a year, but later I lost track of her.”
Lilley’s interest in Africa transpired before her involvement with Blue House when she and her sister, Marian, visited South Africa in 2006.
“When I returned home, there was a newsletter from Hope Multipurpose in the stack of mail. They said they needed help with their website. I said, ‘Yes.’ ”
Lilley was a communications specialist and webmaster for the University of Minnesota Extension until she retired last year. She has served as vice-president, communications for Hope for more than 10 years.
When Lilley’s sister suggested they return to Africa more than a year ago, Blue House was the logical destination, Lilley said. Joining Lilley and her sister was Marian’s daughter, 15-year-old Hannah Crayton.
Their December trip took a lot of preparation. Along with logistics, such as the timing for rabies vaccine and malaria medicine, Lilley did some “deeper” planning.
“I wanted to determine what my work would be once I was there,” she said. “Also, this is Blue House’s 10th year and we’re using this time to reflect and plan the future.”
Aine Abel, the director of the Blue House in Uganda, met the women at the airport. “Aine had been to St. Paul and to my home in 2012, so he scouted out a hotel that he thought we’d like, which was about 30 minutes from Kazo,” Lilley said, “and he found a driver for us. In a developing country, if you own a car, you are a taxi driver.”
The night the travelers arrived at Blue House, all 30 of the girls who live there ran out to the car to greet them.
“We each got 30 hugs,” she said. The girls then proceeded to lift their visitors’ heavy suitcases (which contained clothing, games, books and other supplies for the girls) and carry them on their heads into the house.
“They brought us into the residence, gave us tea and, from the oldest [age 20] to the youngest [age 8], they were just so sweet,” Lilley said. “Hannah, being a teenager, connected with them right away. Some girls are older than the traditional high school student, but they lost some years of their education while they were out there trying to simply survive.”
The women visited the Blue House each morning.
“When we arrived, we would get hugs from any girls who were there,” Lilley said. “The girls cooked, washed dishes and cared for themselves and the younger girls without being told. There were two housemothers living there, but the girls all got along. By our standards, they don’t have much, but they were so grateful for everything.”
All the girls attend either public school or boarding school. Lilley also met a couple who cared for the original orphans.
“They had nine children of their own and were also caring for eight girls who were among the first residents of Blue House. The woman did not speak English, but began talking, and Aine interpreted. She thanked us and said, ‘We never thought the Americans would stick with us after Beatrice died.’ ”
Along with growing food on their farm, the girls care for and milk their cows and prepare meals for more than 30 people every day.
“They also make traditional crafts and sew. One of the housemothers was a sewing instructor and is teaching the girls to sew their own clothes and garments they can sell in the local market,” said Lilley.
Hope Multipurpose’s immediate goal is to add more girls at Blue House, Lilley said.
“We built the new Blue House in 2008 and started adding more girls. We’re up to 30 now. We have capacity for 40 and are adding girls as we can afford them. Sustainability is one of the goals of the Ugandan board, and they are looking at doing some of their own fundraising and other projects that could help them become more financially independent.”
Beatrice Garubanda’s dream shows no signs of ending.
Karen Lilley will give a talk about her trip to Blue House on Tuesday, March 4, at 7 p.m. at Luther Seminary’s Olson Campus Center lecture room in the lower level.
For more information visit www.hopemultipurpose.org. Natalie Zett has been writing for the Bugle since the early 1990s. Her work has appeared in a number of Twin Cities publications.