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Unique arts camp aims to help Ugandan orphans

Date: 8/3/2009

By Courtney Llewellyn

Reminder Assistant Editor

LONGMEADOW Kellen O'Gara said she has always been involved in theater. She believes it is a unique form of communication, and even though it differs drastically among different cultures, it is something that is universally appreciated. That's why she's taken her passion overseas to help children in dire straits have fun.

A member of the Longmeadow High School class of 2006, O'Gara will be a senior this fall at Boston College, where she is majoring in both Theater and Communications. She was awarded an Advanced Study Grant from the college earlier this year for her summer research project, "Arts Empowerment in Africa."

"Once I knew that I wanted to partner with ASTEP [Artists Striving to End Poverty] and create a summer program for these kids [orphans aged 10 to 18 in Uganda], I just applied for the grant!" O'Gara said. "There were so many qualified applicants and amazing project ideas - I was really lucky to be chosen."

The seeds for "Arts Empowerment in Africa" were planted when Mary Mitchell-Campbell, the founder of ASTEP, joined the Boston College staff through the Rev. J. Donald Monan, SJ Professorship in Theater Arts for the 2008-09 academic year. Through her, O'Gara learned about the organization and its mission.

"After watching segments of ASTEP's documentary of their work in South Africa in 2007, I knew that I wanted to get involved with the organization," O'Gara explained. "The idea for 'Arts Empowerment in Africa' really fell into place on its own! ASTEP is an organization that believes that the arts can be a powerful catalyst for the empowerment of younger generations. The program's mission is to connect artists who wish to share their talents with children in under-privileged communities around the world who will benefit from the artists' involvement."

Mauricio Salgado, program director for ASTEP, said he was filled with optimism and excitement when O'Gara approached him about volunteering.

"[Her project] didn't fit in with the time frame for them to travel to our South African program, so she did something off the cuff, on her own," he said. "Her will and ambition were amazing."

Salgado noted that he helped O'Gara come up with the foundation for her program.

"They [the children in Africa] understand art," he said. "They have access to it in a lot of ways. It helps them tell their story."

Drew Sandbulte, founder of Housing Uganda's Children and head of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) office in Uganda, told O'Gara that he wanted to create a summer camp for the orphaned children he worked with.

"His only specifications were that the kids have fun. With ASTEP's philosophy and Drew's request, the project sort of created itself!" O'Gara said.

"Art has the power to bring people together to communicate the understanding that we share a common humanity," she added. "This power is just beginning to be tapped by professionals in the field. There is so much that can be done to harness this power and transform it into a tool of social discourse and change."

O'Gara and her friend Peter Ferguson, a sociology major at Boston College, received training from ASTEP July 20 through 22 and left from New York City to travel to Uganda on July 23. The two will return from their work on Aug. 20.

She told Reminder Publications before she left that her goal for "Arts Empowerment in Africa" is that the program works.

"All I can ask is that it is a valuable experience for both us and the kids," O'Gara said. "I want them to have fun and learn in the process - whether that something is a new appreciation for the arts or simply more self-confidence.

"I think it is vitally important to demonstrate the power of the arts as a universal tool for stimulating a greater sense of social understanding and acceptance in the face of socially-recognized differences," she added.