I met John Paul Vicory a few years ago in Hawaii.  He was part of a troupe of photographers compiling a book of their experience traveling the globe.  I was impacted, especially, by a story he told of the time he and his team spent in conversation with sex workers in the Red Light district of Amsterdam, a story featured in the book Sex + Money: A Global Search for Human Worth. [View John’s stunning photography here.]

John Paul’s honesty about his life and experience is disarming; his genuine concern for those who suffer is informed not by pity, but with genuine love.  I was intrigued to learn that he was embarking on a trip to Africa to work with children orphaned by AIDs, something he has done before.

John Paul travels to Mbiko, Uganda and Addis Ababa, Ethiopia on 29 June, 2010 to reconnect with two orphan care centers in order to help establish sustainable and transparent Child Sponsorship Programs.  Born in Denver, Colorado, John Paul is pursuing a Master’s Degree in International Care and Community Development.  I caught up with John Paul  (via email) before his adventure to learn more about his project.

Andrew Kooman: You describe, in your recent project proposal for an orphan center, hearing a young choir of orphans in Uganda sing about their parents’ death to AIDS. The thought of that moment sends chills down my spine. Describe what it’s like to encounter young children who have suffered much?

John Paul Vicory: I sat listening to them singing that song for the first time with my hand over my mouth in disbelief. I couldn’t believe that these beautiful children had experienced so much tragedy. It makes me sad. It is such a humbling experience seeing so much pain in these little children. They don’t deserve it at all. I was shamed almost because I walk around so often thinking that my problems are so important. It was, and continues to be, an experience that changes my life.

AK: Can you recount the moment when you decided you had to do something to help orphans in Uganda?

JPV: I remember the exact morning. It was one of the most emotionally charged days in my entire life. I had been in Uganda for about a month, Africa for 3 months, and I was kind of depressed. I didn’t feel like I had any purpose being there and I was tired. Tired of the mundane work I was doing and tired of feeling useless. I wanted to make a difference. A series of divine appointments landed my friend Alex and I at St. Ameria’s [Orphan Care Center] to hear the children sing. Later that week God dropped a vision bomb on my head and changed the course of my life. He told me what to do, He gave me the path. I was wrapped in a Masaai blanket, sitting on a porch looking over the sugar cane fields and Lake Victoria having my quiet time. I literally started crying because the feeling was so heavy with joy. It feels like the scene out of a movie or something.

“Florence” photograph © John Paul Vicory

AK:. The numbers you detail in your proposal are, quite honestly, unfathomable to me. You cite a UNICEF report that estimates the number of orphans in Uganda will reach 2.5 million by 2010 with an unthinkable 53.1 million orphaned children in sub-Saharan Africa alone (more orphans than there are people in my homeland Canada)! How do you place your work and position yourself in the shadow of such a towering problem?

JPV: I can’t even comprehend the magnitude of the work to be done. 53.1 million really makes it seem like whatever I do with my tiny little time here won’t really make a difference at all. But, there is beauty in that too because I serve a God that knows each and every one of those children and loves them with an unreal love. I hope that I can get a glimpse of that love and can share it with as many people as He puts in my path. My place can seem insignificant in the shadow of the issue, but I know that God uses the willing, and I am willing. Even if He only uses me to touch a few lives, it’s all more than worth it.

AK: In your view, why does it matter that people in North America help African orphans?

JPV: It matters because these children matter and we are all connected. We are all God’s sons and daughters. It matters because North America has so many resources to be able to make a difference. Not only do the children need people to advocate for them, but, as North Americans, we need to look outside of ourselves to see the needs of the world and use the gifts that God has given us to share His love. Jesus said that He is the naked, imprisoned, and destitute. If we truly want to seek Him, we need to go where He is… that includes the poor and needy in North America and in Africa as well.

AK: What do orphans have to offer the communities where they live?

JPV: They are the future of their nations and communities. 2.5 million is a lot of people. Given the opportunity, they could become doctors, teachers, community leaders, lawyers, and prime ministers. They are bright individuals who know about suffering. They know what its like to have less than nothing. Because of their experience, they have a greater understanding of what it would mean to cause a real change for the poor people in their communities. They are the ones that can break the negative cycles because they are in them. They can do far more than I could ever do because I am and will always be outside of the system. Even if they don’t become prime ministers, they can still make a big difference in their communities. Take Edith, the director of St. Ameria, as an example. She is an orphan herself and now directly cares for over a hundred children.

AK: How much of your development work for orphans will involve addressing the issue of AIDS/HIV?

JPV: Initially, addressing HIV/AIDS is going to be related to the direct and immediate care of orphans who are HIV positive, and whose parents have died from AIDS. I would like to focus on the immediate care until that has reached a level that can be reliable. After that, HIV/AIDS will be particularly addressed from a community development standpoint. If HIV is going to be something that generates more orphans, then it is going to be a priority. I don’t know how that is going to work yet, but I have thought about using the orphan care centers as places where the community can come and learn from each other, learn about prevention, hear guest speakers, take votes on the issues that are most pressing, etc.

Markato; Addis Ababa, Ethiopia – photograph © John Paul Vicory

AK: You’ve done work documenting and addressing the reality of children trafficked for sex in Africa. How are orphans particularly vulnerable to traffickers?

JPV: Orphans are vulnerable on a variety of different levels. Since they don’t have families to care for them, they are disregarded by the general population. Who would miss them if they are gone or being taken advantage of? If they are not being cared for, they often end up on the streets trying to survive any way they can. They can fall victim to prostitution and trafficking due to the fact that they need to eat and pimps and traffickers can provide that for them. I have even heard cases of illegal adoptions, which is trafficking as well, and orphan care centers selling children to make money or to keep the doors open and the lights on. There is some really terrible stuff that happens hiding behind a facade of care, which is why accountability and transparency is so important.

AK: What are your goals for your upcoming trip to Uganda and Ethiopia?

JPV: The overarching goal of the trip this summer is to begin the formation of a Child-Sponsorship program at 2 orphan care centers. I need to gather a lot of information and a lot of pictures and video in order to do so. I will also spend a lot of time talking with the directors of the orphan care centers to establish methods of communication, accountability, organizational structure, and general vision for the future of their ministries. The child-sponsorship program will set the stage for future involvement.

AK: What will a successful trip look like to you?

JPV: Hmm. I guess I haven’t thought about that one too much. I would love to bring back compelling footage and get all of the stories of each of the children at each center. I would also like some great ideas for partnering with the directors to come up with sustainable solutions for each of the centers.

AK: You describe a decisive change in your life where you abandoned the pursuit of your own greatness and realized you had a calling to become an advocate for others. What triggered this switch?

JPV:Wow, that makes me sound much cooler than I actually am. I still really live for myself way too much, but I have had a change of heart. The switch was triggered during my conversion actually on a November night in Kohala, Hawaii. Pursuing my own greatness had left me with absolutely nothing except for darkness and death. I didn’t want to live anymore. In the silence of the night I had a conversation with God. I didn’t want to live and He asked me why I was living? At that moment, I realized that I had been selfish. I realized that I needed a Savior, and that Jesus was the only one that could save me. I asked Him to come in and change the way I lived. I woke up the next morning and felt transformed. Everything that I saw, read, and heard, it was as if I was experiencing it for the first time. I was born again.
Soon after that, He gave me the opportunity to spend six months in Africa and showed me who I was to become and the people that I would advocate for. Since then, I have gone places, done things, and met people I never thought possible, and it’s just the beginning.

AK: What advice would you give to people who are touched by the plight of orphans and, beyond giving money, aren’t quite sure what to do?

JPV: I would encourage people to go spend time with my friends in Uganda and Ethiopia. I guarantee that their lives would be changed. Beyond that, there is so much that people can do besides giving money. God has created each of us with gifts. In fact, I believe that we all are uniquely created unlike anyone else and can do things that no one else can do. They can use those gifts to uncover the beauty of God’s creation and to bring Hope where there is none. We need each other to make the biggest change. No matter how smart or dumb I am, I need all kinds of help. I don’t know how to run businesses or construct buildings, but other people do and can provide their gifts for the enrichment of little children that God deeply loves.

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