Seeking a home for Jajja’s Kids
Jajja’s Kids’ largest annual fundraiser may be in the rearview mirror, but the heavy lifting is just beginning.
The Capital Region-based nonprofit raised more than $27,000 at its seventh annual benefit last month, which will support former street children in Kampala, Uganda.
The event — which honored Paul Grondahl, director of the New York State Writers Institute and a weekly columnist at the Times Union — was an opportunity for supporters to experience Ugandan culture. Much of the money raised will go toward a $100,000 campaign to find permanent housing for Jajja’s Kids.
“This has been an organic process — we never dreamed that we would have a home for children and be responsible for the lives and future of 20 kids,” said Diane Reiner, founder of Jajja’s Kids. “Our whole program is about proving hope and a future for them.”
It all began in 2006, when Reiner (a retired state worker) decided to sign up for a photography workshop in Uganda’s capital. There she met Ronnie Sseruyange, an orphan and the ringleader of a group of resourceful street kids who fled starvation, war, human trafficking and abuse. The kids survived being homeless by banding together.
Reiner was photographing street scenes and hired Sseruyange to guide her through Ugandan slums, where she documented the plight of children. She said he was kind, smart and savvy. Kids on the street looked up to him.
“I knew that I had to do something to help,” Reiner said.
The pair soon developed a strong bond, and their shared concern for the lives of homeless children led to the creation in 2008 of the nonprofit Jajja’s Kids that, along with Sseruyange’s nongovernmental organization, helps orphaned kids get off the streets of Kampala.
In a rented house in the capital city, 20 boys and girls between the ages of 9 and 19 rescued from the streets live in a family-like setting and attend a private school.
Jajja’s Kids is pursuing leads on a permanent shelter, but housing and land are expensive in Kampala.
Jajja is a slang term for “grandmother,” or a loving maternal presence, which is what Sseruyange calls Reiner.
“There’s a whole bunch of kids who call me Jajja,” Reiner said. “Even my biological granddaughter, who lives in Japan, calls me Jajja.”
Part of Jajja’s Kids’ mission is to bridge geographic and cultural divisions by connecting children in Uganda with their peers at schools in the Capital Region.
Sseruyange spoke to local students during a visit late last month promoting cross-cultural understanding and meaningful dialogue.
He met with kids in Shenendehowa’s Tesago Elementary School’s afterschool Y-Time program, as well as fourth and fifth grade STEM students at AW Becker Elementary school in the Ravena-Coeymans-Selkirk School District, who created a book about American culture for their friends in Africa.
Sseruyange also returned to Albany Academy for Girls, where he interacted with seventh and eighth graders. The visit was part of an ongoing cultural exchange that includes artwork, cards and letters from students — hand-delivered by Sseruyange — that crossed the Atlantic in both directions.
“He’s quite a wonderful human being,” Reiner said. “There’s a big ripple effect with what we’re doing, because the whole community is impacted.”