Bethel Park alum raising funds to help Uganda children

Published Aug 18, 2014 at 10:57 am (Updated Aug 18, 2014 at 1:16 pm)

A Bethel Park woman who has devoted much of her young life to helping empower others through education and opportunity recently got a chance to meet some of the people whose lives she has changed.

“I’m really involved in Africa,” Lauren O’Brien said. “I’m really passionate about it.”

The 20-year-old Duquesne University sophomore spent five weeks in Uganda learning more about the country and meeting students who are getting a chance to go to school because of her extraordinary fund raising efforts.

“In high school, I was always selling chocolate,” O’Brien said, joking that her bedroom looked like Willy Wonka’s factory. “In one month, I made $1,000.”

Selling Sarris candy bars is just one of the many ways O’Brien raised money to send a group of Ugandan orphans to school.

O’Brien was 17 when she learned about the 25 years of war in Central Africa and about children who were abducted and forced into service as child soldiers and sex slaves. So, she began raising funds for groups working in Uganda.

One of her projects includes buying products made by Women Enterprises and Network Development, a group which provides sustainable jobs for Ugandan women, and selling those items to make money for Ugandan students.

“That helps two different generations of people,” she explained.

Last year, O’Brien heard about 30 orphans who would not be able to afford to attend school.

In Uganda, she explained, it costs a family about $200 a year to send a child to elementary school and about $700 for high school. For that reason, many families only send their oldest child or only their sons.

“Girls not only need to go to school, but they also need health and sex education,” O’Brien said. “Education benefits not only them, but also their whole community.”

O’Brien made it her goal to raise enough money to pay for a year of school for those 30 children.

Her efforts included selling more chocolate, organizing fund raisers such as Halloween dances, concerts and all night movie events.

O’Brien wrote up proposal letters and persuaded churches and other venues to let her use their space free of charge, and she got businesses to donate snacks and raffle items. O’Brien charged students $5 and sold snacks and raffle tickets for items such as Penguin game tickets or seats on the comfy couch for the next feature that night.

“One movie, night I raised $900,” she said.

O’Brien also spoke to any group of people who would listen.

“I did a Thinking Day for Girl Scouts,” she said. “I spoke at six Masses at St. Joan of Arc and after each, I sat on a bench outside with a bucket.”

Parishioners donated $4,000.

She spent Valentine’s Day going through her dorm selling heart-shaped lollipops to students. Once again, candy was the key, and she made $400.

Not just a fund raiser, O’Brien donated money she made working at the concession stand at Simmons Park, and as a waitress at Kings to Ugandan causes.

“One hundred percent of my tips went to Orphans’ Hope and 100 percent of my paychecks went to Invisible Children,” she said.

She also worked as a constable at local polling places and donated that money, too.

Even the $500 she won in a poetry contest went to causes to benefit others.

“I really didn’t deserve that money,” she said modestly. “I had to write it anyway for a school assignment.”

O’Brien set up a Facebook page and solicited donations, and by the time school started in Uganda, she had raised enough money for not only the original 30, but also 12 more children to continue their education.

O’Brien is currently majoring in communications, but is writing a proposal to design her own major in non-profit management. Her parents, she said, were worried about how she would keep up her grades while working for so many causes. She made dean’s list both semesters of her freshman year.

While raising money for the orphans, O’Brien learned about two sisters, Pauline and Juliet, orphaned when their parents died of AIDS. The sisters were among the students who are able to attend school thanks to O’Brien, and the inspiration for her foundation dedicated to educating and empowering women.

“I thought of all the problems young girls here face and on top of all of that, they are orphans,” she said. “Being able to supply these children with education means eventually they would be able to help their community and the world.”

While in Uganda, O’Brien met the eight permanent beneficiaries of that foundation. The eight girls will have their education funded through university graduation, and will receive help with job placement. Janet, one of the eight, was especially distraught about not being able to continue her education as she was about to enter high school.

“She showed up at my friend’s house in the middle of the night crying because her parents could not afford to send her back to school,” O’Brien said.

O’Brien also met Herbert, a young man who received one of two wheelchairs for which she raised funds.

“His mother hugged me and said the day the wheelchair arrived was one of the best days of her life,” she said.

Among the things O’Brien took with her on her trip were two suitcases filled with books which she distributed to three different schools. Visiting the schools inspired her latest project, raising $50,000 to build a school and a library.

“’It’s going to be best school in the district,” she said.

Most importantly, the new school will have desks, O’Brien said. In Uganda, most students sit on benches, if not on the dirt floor, and are easily distracted, she explained. She has already started fund raising by sending letters to community and college service clubs to allow her to speak to them about the project. She is also ordering more candy and has friends lined up to sell the heart-shaped lollipops at colleges throughout Pittsburgh.

“I’ll have events,” she said. “I’ll get another weekend job. I’ll go door-to-door if I have to. I raised $32,000 in less than three years. If I make a goal, I’m going to reach it!”

To learn more about O’Brien and her work with Ugandan students, visit www.facebook.com/PaulineJulietInc.

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