Beading the Change
Southwestern student receives international recognition for a project she started to help widows and orphans in Uganda
Sophomore Jenna Gaska is no stranger to community service. As early as middle school, she spent several summers volunteering at the Institute of Texan Cultures in her hometown of San Antonio. Throughout high school, Gaska belonged to the National Honor Society and the Latin Club, both of which focus on scholastic achievement and community involvement.
So it comes as no surprise that upon entering college, Gaska decided to broaden the scope of her service and “Bead the Change” she wanted to see in the world in addition to pursuing a double major in biology and classics.
Shortly after arriving at Southwestern, Gaska joined Circle K International, the world’s premier collegiate service organization. The organization has more than 13,000 members on 560 campuses around the world. Gaska was particularly interested in starting a service project with an international focus.
She found a website called Nabuur.com that that links online volunteers with villages in Africa, Asia and Latin America to share ideas and find solutions to local issues. One of the organizations she found, Revelation Children’s Ministries International, said they were looking for a marketplace for the various goods they were making by hand. Gaska proposed a partnership between Circle K and RCMI to sell their products in Georgetown and both parties agreed.
Her project, “Bead the Change,” is aptly named for the service it provides for two remote villages in Uganda. Mothers and caregivers in these war-torn villages use recycled and purchased paper to make beads for jewelry. The beads are made by rolling strips of paper around a toothpick, varnishing them and drying them. The women then create one-of-a-kind necklaces, bracelets and earrings in vibrant colors and more neutral shades.
Circle K received its first shipment of the jewelry in December 2009. They are selling it on campus and at various craft shows, but it also is available for purchase wholesale.
“There’s so much organization that goes into preparing for sales once we receive a shipment,” Gaska said. “It takes a lot of organizing, and of course the sales themselves can get very hectic.”
After the project started, Gaska received a flood of e-mail messages from other villages and groups wanting to export handmade goods. Circle K selected one other organization in Uganda that makes paper bead jewelry to work with called the Agoro Community Development Association.
“We wanted to make sure that the groups we were working with were legitimate, so we made sure to get their government certification that they were either a non-governmental or community-based organization,” Gaska said. “We also had a friend of a friend who was working as a missionary in Uganda and was able to check out RCMI specifically to make sure they would put the money to good use.”
Both organizations provide financial assistance to orphans and widows in the communities they work with. Many of the village widows lost their husbands in the tribal conflict that plagues Northern Uganda. The Lord’s Resistance Army initiated an armed rebellion against the Ugandan government in 1987 in what has become one of Africa’s longest-running conflicts. Orphans often lose their parents to HIV/AIDS, which has decimated the childbearing working class population and forced those left behind to cope with desperate poverty.
“They are especially trying to provide the orphans with life skills that will allow them to support themselves,” said Gaska, who corresponds with many villagers by letters, phone calls or e-mail messages.
Gaska said the money they have been sending back to Uganda has primarily been going to fund education and different school supplies that the children need in order to be successful. She said her dream is to go to Uganda to work with both groups in person, either by working with a nonprofit organization or putting her biology degree to use doing medical research.
The members of Circle K and the villagers they work with have been amazed by the success of the “Bead the Change” program, which has raised $5,732.16 to date. “We never thought it would be that successful or that it would continue to be as successful as it has been,” said Gaska, who credits much of her program’s success to the members of Circle K and other Southwestern students who have gotten involved on campus. “It just makes you really glad to know you can make a difference without necessarily going over there. Of course, we all would love to do that, but just being able work here at Southwestern as college students has been so rewarding.”
Circle K International has taken note of the program’s success as well. At the organization’s International Convention in August, “Bead the Change” won 3rd place at the international level for best single service project in 2009-2010.
Southwestern’s Circle K chapter had 33 members last year and is focusing on new recruitment as they plan their next sale, which is scheduled to take place Oct. 21 from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. in the Bishops Lounge. Gaska said she wants to continue the program as long as Circle K is willing to help out with it, but she is already laying the groundwork for her next projects.
“They’re trying to make a child care center with some of the money we’ve been able to raise here on their behalf, and we are also trying to get them a new sewing machine,” she said.
− Shannon Hicks