In the wake of a devastating civil war, the African nation of Uganda has an estimated 2.7 million orphaned children, according to UNICEF. Despite the country’s hardships, USF graduate Jason Cherres returned from Uganda Monday with a message of hope.
Cherres, who graduated from USF over the summer with a degree in television production, traveled to the country by himself to film a documentary that might raise awareness of their troubles. Yet, when he arrived in Gulu and visited the Gulu Catholic Missionary, he said he decided he needed to do much more than make a film.
“I came back feeling this huge responsibility to help the future of Uganda,” he said.
He said his documentary, called “Hope in Kalongo,” will shine light on the struggles to rebuild in the village, and to show how they lack educational and medical researchers. But halfway through his trip, Cherres expanded his mission to not only tell the story, but to also take an active role once he returned.
Cherres plans to talk with various colleges to develop opportunities for students to travel to Uganda and lend a helping hand. At the orphanage in Gulu, Cherres befriended Odida Charles, who told him about the restoration program Center for Adults and Child Education.
The program aims to increase educational opportunity for citizens of all ages. Charles urged Cherres to reach out to the University and through their talks, Cherres said he realized these people needed more than a documentary.
“What this told me was that I have a great responsibility now (to) see what we can do to get students to go to Uganda to intern for the program, volunteering at the hospital, teaching – really anything,” he said. “That’s something that blew my mind because this could benefit the whole nation, not just Kalongo.”
Cherres began his journey on Aug. 20, arriving in the capital of Kampala. He then joined with a nun, Dr. Achora Vincentina, who he met through his fraternity brother and senior majoring in biomedical sciences and political science Cesar Hernandez. In Kampala, he visited the site of the 2010 bombing that killed 74 people who were watching the FIFA World Cup. Cherres said connecting with Vincentina, who works in the Kalongo Memorial Hospital, was essential to his security.
“I was OK with traveling by myself because in Uganda nuns are very highly regarded – they do a lot for the country,” he said. “She ran the whole hospital over there.”
In Kalongo, Cherres met a former child soldier who had escaped the Lord’s Resistance Army. The 18-year-old had no living relatives other than his father, as his mother and 13 siblings were killed during the war, he said. He also met a refugee from the Congo, who fled to Uganda when rebel troops were forced out and became prevalent in his home country.
He then traveled to the Gulu Catholic Missionary to talk with the children. There he stayed in a grass hut – an experience he said he will never forget.
“There’s no electricity – when it goes dark, that’s the end of their day,” he said. “Their family values are very strong, so at night the main source of entertainment is talking with one another.”
At the orphanage, Cherres passed out clothing he brought over to the children, who he said loved listening to radio broadcasts of soccer matches. The shirts were provided by Bulls Country at USF and Trendsetter Clothing Company, which was founded by USF student Jose Almanzar.
Almanzar, a senior majoring in business, sent Cherres with 30 T-shirts to hand out to orphans and an extra shirt for them all to autograph. Trendsetters will then design that shirt to sell in order to raise awareness and funds for the orphans.
“The message of the company is to raise the level of social consciousness of not just national, but global issues,” he said.
Cherres said he also got help from Robert Fiallo, director of Bulls Country at USF, who contributed clothing. Other than a few donations from friends and family, Cherres said he funded the trip himself.
Cherres now begins the process of editing and piecing together his documentary, which he hopes to finish in October.
His passion for global issues wasn’t formed overnight. Born in Callao, Peru, to a military family, Cherres said he has spent his life traveling – graduating high school in Germany before coming to the U.S. for college.
When he was 10 years old, he returned to his hometown and was shocked by the impoverished nature of his old community. It was at that young age that Cherres said he developed awareness for such issues.
“I’ve always had a sense to want to help, but how can I?” he said. “I’m not a doctor, I’m not a business person – but I’ve always had a sense as a filmmaker. I’ve always had a sense of helping the less fortunate, and I want this film to show people why they should feel the same.”