While most students spent their winter break sleeping late and celebrating the holidays, student body President Cesar Hernandez spent a week in Uganda filming a documentary about the country’s needs — a journey that was a year in the making.
“It was the spring (2009) semester and it was finals week and I remember something told me to go to Mass. I was stressed out. I was like, ‘Let me take a study break,'” he said of his trip’s inception. “After Mass they had these two nuns from Africa speak. The nun came up and started talking about the Civil War in Uganda. The Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) would go into villages and kidnap the children. They would take 10 children, they would kill two or three in front of the rest of them to baptize them by blood, and force them to fight in the army. They would take the girls and make them their wives and rape them. This is pure evil, you know, this is horrifying.”‘
The LRA is a religious and militant rebel group that has been engaged in war with the Ugandan government since 1986, according to BBC News. The country has been ravaged by fighting and many children have been orphaned.
After Hernandez became student body president in spring 2010, he got in touch with one of the nuns that spoke during the Mass.
“She has to deal with all of these children who have fought in the war and she has to try and assimilate them into society,” he said. “I told her, ‘I don’t know how I am going to be able to help you, but I would like to.'”
His opportunity eventually manifested in $2,000 he had saved from his Student Government (SG) paychecks — enough to send him to the nuns’ orphanage in Kolongo, Uganda, to film his documentary ”Hope in Kolongo.”
“The documentary is to let people know and educate them on what’s going on,” he said. “They have a pediatric ward that they don’t even have beds for. They have children on the concrete floor connected to the IV’s against the wall. We can give them a bed. We can give them a cot.”
Hernandez said he is currently editing the film and hopes to premiere it at USF this semester — where he is formulating additional fundraising ideas for the rural city with the help of the Seraph Foundation, a non-profit humanitarian organization he founded two years ago.
Jason Roman, vice president of the Seraph Foundation and a senior majoring in nursing, said one of those ideas is to host a gala at USF on April 9 to raise money for Kolongo, as well as the foundation’s other efforts.
“Cesar has that personality where he’s a go-getter. That was just a trip to go and see everything they need and realize how much help we have to give them,” he said.
Joana Rabassa, chairwoman for the gala and a sophomore majoring in public relations and dance, said the gala would be a “cocktail affair” where attendees could either purchase a plate or sponsor the event.
“I was born in Cuba so I know what it’s like to be in a Third World country or a country that doesn’t necessarily have all the resource,” she said. “I know what’s it’s like to be in that position where you just don’t have the capabilities or the means to fend for yourself. I just feel that being so blessed and being in the United States and having all these resources to our advantage — its only right to spread our wealth.”
Hernandez said his goal is to raise $20,000 to build a new home for the orphanage and supply the children with scholarships to attend school.
“Some of the orphans that are in the orphanage have lost their family to the war and have lost their family to AIDS and were made to fight in the war,” he said. “A lot of them are actually brilliant but they don’t have the money to actually pay for school.”
He also hopes to find sponsors to help bring two ambulances and a supply truck to the Kolongo hospital, as well as a team of USF medical students.
Hernandez said he hopes potential donors will be just as moved by what they see in his documentary as he was from his week in Kolongo.
“I’ve been to Third World countries before and it’s always the same. There are always the people who are suffering off of other’s corruption,” he said. “It’s just sad because the people are so nice. They’re so sweet. They’re so welcoming. Like, they don’t just say, ‘Hello,’ they say, ‘You are welcome.’ You would not know that they are starving, that malaria is killing them, that AIDS is killing them, that they are fighting a civil war, that they’re being mistreated. They are the sweetest people … Everybody should be able to have an equal opportunity and chance at life.”