By Stephen Leon
Ann Fantauzzi and her group of volunteers with the Giving Circle had just finished an “activity day” in a Ugandan village, working with local children. The day went smoothly enough, but as the bus was about to take the visiting workers back to their hotel some miles away, Fantauzzi experienced the emotionally wrenching side of working in one of Africa’s poorest regions.
The bus came to a sudden halt, and Fantauzzi wasn’t sure why. “And I’m sitting in the back of the bus, and looking out the window, and a father was walking down the road cradling something in his arms. And as he got closer, I could tell it was a child, and the child was dead, wrapped up. There was a procession of eight or nine people behind him. I said to somebody, ‘That’s a dead child.’ It just hit me. I’m a new grandmother, and I couldn’t fathom it.”
In a Ugandan village where food and water are scarce and mere survival is a daily challenge, babies and children die with a regularity that people from affluent countries can scarcely imagine. For volunteers experiencing life in this part of the world for the first time, the reality is jarring.
“Why do we choose to put ourselves in emotional and physical harm’s way to serve others?” asks Patricia Fennell, a consultant for the Giving Circle who also has served as director of volunteers for St. Peter’s Hospice in Albany. “Nobody does this work unless they have to. Because when you choose to do this, you will be changed. It’s going to change you. And change can be painful.”
The volunteers pay their own expenses. The Giving Circle pays for insurance and bookkeeping; the rest of the money raised goes directly into programs.
The group works locally, helping underserved residents of Saratoga Springs with services such as Code Blue, an emergency homeless shelter; nationally, sending volunteer relief teams to areas hard hit by hurricanes and other deadly storms; and internationally, building schools, health and birthing clinics, and orphanages, and working on projects as varied as farming and teaching children to play chess, in Uganda and Afghanistan.
Coincidentally, Fantauzzi, who had then just retired from 34 years teaching in the Saratoga public school system, also traveled to Florida in November 2005 to help with relief efforts after Hurricane Wilma. She was not yet connected to the Giving Circle, but she had begun a journey in volunteerism that would soon take her to Africa, and eventually, to a chance meeting in Saratoga with Giving Circle founder Mark Bertrand.
In the early ’90s, Fantauzzi joined the Glens Falls chapter of Habitat for Humanity and helped rehab five houses in the area. She continued to be driven toward volunteerism and helping others, among other things, arranging school trips to Russia and other foreign countries. She credits her husband, Damian Fantauzzi, with always being supportive of her volunteer work. “I am very lucky,” she says, noting that not all spouses are so patient. “When he sent me off to Cuba, he thought he’d never see me again.”
Some years later, Fantauzzi began sponsoring a young girl in Uganda so that her parents could send her to school.
In November 2005, after doing hurricane relief in Florida, she flew out to Washington State to be with her brother, Doug Lamoreaux, who was dying of cancer. He was a professor of education at Pacific Lutheran College, and Fantauzzi had become good friends with his colleagues. Lamoreaux had done student exchange programs in Norway, and one of his colleagues did one in Namibia.
After Doug passed away on New Year’s Eve, 2005, Ann was invited to join a group traveling to the sparsely populated country in southwest Africa. She went back to Namibia two more times, helping student teachers get their programs up and running.
In 2010, Fantauzzi and Patricia Fennell wrote three papers on chronic illness in children, with plans to present them at a conference in Namibia. Fennell couldn’t make the trip, but Fantauzzi delivered the papers at the conference.
She could have flown home, but she had an urge to meet the girl she was sponsoring, whose name (last name first) is Gonzo Tracey. Fantauzzi flew to Uganda instead, and stayed at the AOET (AIDS Orphans Education Trust) house. Her driver took her 20 minutes from there to where Tracy lived, where most of the houses were made of mud and cow dung. Her mother, father, and five children lived in a one-room house with a dirt floor. Her father had been disabled in a truck accident and could not work.
“That was the first time I really realized what education meant to these kids,” Fantauzzi says. “They had nothing. They were so grateful that her daughter was going to school. Her mother got down on her knees, kissed my hands, and said, ‘Thank you, thank you, thank you.’
And I said, “We’ll get her through high school.”
Fantauzzi made one more trip to Uganda with AOET the next year, and when she came home, she made a presentation about her trip in Saratoga. Mark Bertrand was there. After doing her talk and showing pictures, “I sat down, and Mark leaned over very quietly and said to me, ‘I want you to come to Uganda with the Giving Circle and do an education project.’”
“My mother and father were very much volunteer people,” says Ann Fantauzzi. “My brother and I were both adopted. They gave us a good life and an education.”
Still, like so many adopted children, she became driven to uncover her roots.
“Much of my adult life I have been trying to find my birth mother,” Fantauzzi says, and she did find her ten years ago. Her own experiences have fueled a more general concern for adopted and abandoned children. “I’ve seen so many orphans in Uganda, and I feel for them.”
Uganda was one of the countries hardest hit by the AIDS epidemic, leaving behind countless orphans. Many are absorbed into other families, but the numbers are daunting. One of the Giving Circle’s projects there was building an orphanage.
The Giving Circle also received funding from Soroptimist (a global volunteer organization dedicated to improving the lives of women and girls), which they used to build a birthing clinic, staffed with a midwife, in the village of Kagoma Gate near the town of Jinja, the two places where the organization does its Uganda work.
Fantauzzi also talks of the unusually high number of deaf children, which she attributes to malaria and the treatment for malaria. In Uganda, she discovered, many deaf children are referred to as “idiots” and are abandoned by their parents. The Giving Circle coordinated services for deaf children, as well as training for sign teachers.
Now, she says, Jinja has a bilingual school: “English and sign.”
Deaf children who were brought to the school were scared when they arrived, she says, because they had never had been treated like human beings before. Now, the kids all play together.
In 2011, when the Giving Circle was working in Jinja, Bertrand was invited to visit “the forgotten people of Kagoma Gate,” Uganda’s poorest village.
“Mark went in there in 2011,” Fantauzzi says. “He said it was one of the worst places he had ever seen. He said there was no clean water, no sanitation. Lots of babies died.”
And the village had no school. “The government said they’d supply the teachers if we built a school. We built a brick-and-mortar school with online donations of $5 bricks. The school had three rooms for primary 1, 2 and 3. We helped them paint it, but [local workers] built it.”
Overseen by the Giving Circle’s Uganda team leader, Moses Wambi, and engineer/designer Emmanuel Walubi (“Emma”), the Ugandan team built the school and all the desks, all supported by donations. Everything was ready — except they had underestimated the number of children who would walk in, not only from Kagoma Gate, but also from nearby villages. “There were more than a hundred,” recalls Fantauzzi.
“Mark said, ‘I want to build more buildings.’ So we built four more classrooms. Now they have primary 1 to primary 7, and also kitchens to feed them.” The Giving Circle also equipped the school in Jinja with a kitchen; children who come to the schools get two meals a day.
Both schools teach kids in grades 1 through 7; the Jinja school is integrated with deaf and disabled children.
“My dream is to have libraries in both schools,” Fantauzzi says. “We’re teaching kids to read, but they don’t have anything to read.”
With the Giving Circle, it’s not hard to imagine this happening.
Fantauzzi mentions a disabled boy whose grandmother was carrying him around on her back. “We got him into school, we got him a wheelchair for school, and we got him one for home,” she says.
“These are the things that really make this such a good thing to be doing.”
And somehow, the Giving Circle’s work helping improve the lives of people in Jinja and Kagoma Gate led Fantauzzi to the game of chess.
“I read a book called The Queen of Katwe,” Fantauzzi recalls. “Katwe is probably the most impoverished area in Kampala [Uganda’s capital]. “I was so inspired by it. … It was about this man [Robert Katende] who was a national soccer player, and a math teacher, and a chess player … [and] he believed that chess was such a worldly opportunity for kids.”
Katende believed that playing chess taught a variety of useful life skills, and he started running a chess drop-in program in Kampala as part of his Christian missionary work. At the sanctuary where he taught chess, Katende would have food for the children, which proved to be a big draw.
“So this little girl, Phiona [Mutesi], was selling corn on the street,” Fantauzzi says of the book’s heroine. “And she heard about [the drop-in], and she followed her brother there, and found out they were giving food. And she was hungry. … Robert had her come in, and he introduced her to the game.
“It turned out she was a prodigy. She picked it up very quickly, and she was beating the boys.”
Katende realized Phiona was a gifted player, especially when she started beating him. He took her outside the slums to complete against privileged players from boarding schools and universities. In 2007, at about age 11, she won the Uganda women's junior championship, and took the title the following two years until the Uganda Chess Federation ran out of money to stage the event.
Crucial to success in chess is the ability to see many moves ahead, and Phiona is said to be able to see as far ahead as eight moves. She is particularly fond of “queening” — when a pawn survives all the way to the other side of the board and becomes a queen — and draws parallels to her own life.
Katende continued to coach Phiona, and took her to her first major international competition, in Siberia, where she got the attention of journalist Tim Crothers, who wrote a piece on her for ESPN. Crothers published The Queen of Katwe in 2012, which was adapted for a Disney movie released in 2016.
Phiona Mutesi eventually won a scholarship to attend Northwest University in Kirkland, Washington.
Sensing an opportunity for the children of Jinja and Kagoma Gate, Fantauzzi e-mailed Crothers and told her about the Giving Circle’s work, and that she loved what Robert was doing, and that she’s like to do something like that.
“So, my email to Tim was forwarded to Robert in Uganda,” she says. “And Robert contacted me within 48 hours. And he said, ‘Chess would be so good for them, I’ll help you out in any way I can.’”
Fantauzzi learned that Katende was at a conference in New York City, and hopped on a Metro North train in Poughkeepsie in the wee hours on the morning Katende was to depart for home, so she could have a breakfast meeting with him. “He said, ‘Let’s Do something.’”
Fantauzzi secured a stipend and gas money for Katende to drive from Kampala to Jinja and run a program. “We had wonderful results,” she says. “Academically, we thought there was an impact.”
Katende took them to tournaments. At one in Kampala, they all got to meet Russian grandmaster Garry Kasparov. They stayed overnight in the capital. The kids had never been out of the village, never been in a car, never seen stairs, never seen flushing toilets, Fantauzzi says.
“They flushed the toilets all night long.”
And Kagoma Gate now has its first champion, a girl about 13 years old, a top student who went to the Ugandan national championship tournament and won a gold medal. The girl, whose name is Lucky, also won a scholarship dedicated by Fantauzzi.
“She said, ‘I want to be like Phiona.’”
I tell the kids: “Chess is a global language. You can go to any country and find chess players.”
“Uganda is not someplace you go for a vacation,” Fantauzzi says.
And when it’s time to come home, reentry can be difficult.
Patricia Fennell: “Volunteering in the Third World is like hospice work, is like [a tour of duty in the armed forces]. You are a band of brothers and sisters doing this work. … A veteran coming home is not unlike a volunteer returning from the Third World.”
Some people come home, Fennell says, “and they’re traumatized by what they went through. … They have trouble eating. They have trouble going out and shopping.”
“You come back from spending two weeks with families and children who don’t have close to what you have,” Fantauzzi adds. “One of the things I’ve heard people say is it’s hard to go into a grocery store and see so much food.”
“I have a greater sensitivity now to wasting water and wasting food,” she continues. “The kids [in the Ugandan villages] have to get the firewood and the water. In our village, kids will walk miles, hours to get a jerrycan full of water and struggle to carry it back. And that’s their water for the day.”
And thanks to the clinics the Giving Circle has built and staffed, Fantauzzi says, “In the last year, we have not lost any babies.”
Copyright 2018 Stephen Leon
This story also appears on the blog at albanyhealthmanagement.com, the website of Albany Health Management Associates, Patricia Fennell, president.