Natalie Barr with one of the many boxes of hockey equipment which will be sent to Uganda at the end of May.
Last summer, Charlene’s Project travelled from Ireland with half a ton of hockey sticks, balls and kit to Uganda. A year on, the incredible Barr family looks set to make the same journey with double that amount as their efforts to promote the sport in a new area go from strength to strength, writes Stephen Findlater.
For the past couple of months, the Barrs have been travelling around the emerald isle picking up donations at events like the Irish Senior Cup final, the All-Ireland schoolgirls championships and the Irish Hockey League.
And the volume of the offerings has left Dickie Barr – the father of the family – with an “amazing” feeling.
“I couldn’t stress enough how fantastic it has been, going around the different grounds, people meeting us there and having kit bags, sticks and whatever,” he said. “You just experience a real oneness from everybody trying to make a difference.“
It’s another remarkable layer to a story that dates back to 1990. Born with cystic fibrosis, Charlene Barr was very ill in her first year of life and spent all her time in hospital, at times looking unlikely that she would survive.
After her first birthday, she was fostered by the Barr family, which subsequently led to adoption. Charlene passed away 20 years later from her condition but not before developing a deep love of Africa and a desire to put her altruistic side to use.
Nurturing this, the family travelled to Uganda in Easter 2008, a trip that transformed Charlene’s focus on life.
When Charlene had to drop out of school due to failing health she made the decision that she would raise money to build a school in Uganda so that children there would get a chance of an education.
She launched Charlene’s Project in September 2009 with the dream of building Hidden Treasure Primary School for children in Maya, Kampala.
The fact that Charlene suffered so much herself, yet still turned her attentions onto the needs of others separated this story like no other.
An initial fundraising, target of £70,000 for the building of a school to accommodate 250 children was reached within five months. A subsequent target of £120,000 to build a well for the local village and provide teacher accommodation for the school was also reached.
However, while Charlene was seeing the project grow her health was failing and she passed away in October 2010. Just one week before, two Trustees from Charlene’s Project went to Uganda to finalise the legalities and admin for the school building to begin.
The day after she was buried photos came through of the ground being cleared, the trees being removed and the workers beginning the physical task of starting the work.
Now, three years on the Hidden Treasure school educates over 250 students a year with a well now in situ for the whole village of Maya.
Since then, the project has started building work on a second primary school in Kahara, with a borehole drilled nearby to supply water for the local community, too.
As part of both schools’ curriculum, hockey looks set to feature heavily. Charlene’s sisters are steeped in the sport. Natalie captaining Lurgan High School to the All-Ireland Schoolgirl’s Championship two years ago while twins Serena and Bethany matched that feat in March.
And they have used that passion to help add an extra dimension to the project. Their father, Dickie, explains that they are quickly developing this sporting aspect to the schools in an area where precious little options were available before.
“Going back to 2009 when we first went to Hidden Treasure, they just had a wooden shack and the kids were kicking around a dried fig as a football.
“We had brought a few frisbees and even the teachers had never seen frisbees before. That’s the context. Hockey in Hidden Treasure and Kahara, it's brand new.”
Natalie, an Irish underage international, went out to provide coaching last year and will be bringing her team this summer from Liberty College, Virginia where she is now on a hockey scholarship, to help expand the coaching.
“Its in its infancy. Last time, we did sessions with the teachers because it was all new to them.
“Last year, we were teaching them the rules. A lot of the kids were in bare foot and getting whacked around a little but they are just so hardy and you scarcely saw tears from them.”
They have been receiving help on the ground from Youth Sports Uganda and their director Joshua Opolot who is also the Ugandan national team coach.
He will host initial coaching days for over 400 children from Hidden Treasure and Kahara as well as from a number of other schools. Catering for those newcomers, though, required plenty of equipment and that has where the Irish hockey public has come through.
“We have a couple of rooms here filled with boxes of sticks, kit and equipment which we are looking to get shipped over by the end of May. It’s just been fantastic,” Dickie adds.“I think we’ll have more this year, somewhere between half a ton and a ton. Sticks and balls are the heaviest and they are still coming in. Last year, it was two palettes that we sent but I can see it being four palettes this time.
“We got about 800 shirts from people in Irish hockey so every child we meet, we will be able to give a piece of kit to which will make for some fantastic photographs. Last time around, Natalie gave sticks and cones but to be able to give a full kit to schools will be amazing.”
He adds the programme is developing apace with improved facilities available.
“Last year, all the coaching was on stone and soil. They now have a grass surface they can use but four initial sessions will be on the astroturf in Kampala.
“There is now a mixture of standards now because some of the kids Joshua has had in the camps before. When he has time to get around the schools, he will be trying to bring those players.
“With the support from him trying to develop the sport in Uganda, there’s a double gain. The donations give him the resources to create a bigger impact.”
And the Irish hockey public has already been able to see the direct recipients of their donations.
“Through Facebook, you have some of the people who have donated kit seeing their gear in pictures. It makes that connection straightaway and the more photos we take, the more people are seeing their kit.
“It’s a powerful tool and shows the impact of everyone coming together and Irish hockey making a difference internationally. I love seeing that link developed.”
In future, Dickie hopes that more a couple of teams could travel out to Uganda to play some showcase games, perhaps in tandem with a voluntary building week. He says it is notional at the moment but his family’s ability to realise the incredible suggests it may closer to reality than he believes.
To learn more about Charlene's Project and Youth Sport Uganda, please click on the links below.
Youth Sport Uganda: http://www.ysuganda.org/
A video about Charlene's Project, created in 2009, can be found at the bottom of this page.