Katie Robben is back in her hometown of Breese, on a working visit to family and friends while she tries to foster donations to the place that has her heart, Uganda.
Instead of climate-controlled comfort near her family in Breese, Robben, 27, lives as a guest with “three priests, a couple seminarians ... and somebody who cooks” in Uganda. Instead of getting ready to teach at Breese Elementary, as she did for three years, she’s making the rounds of churches in Southern Illinois to raise money for a school in Uganda, where she teaches two classes.
And while cuddling with her newborn nephew while visiting home, she is thinking of her students struggling in poverty an ocean away.
“Right now, I do feel like my presence is making a tiny positive change there,” she said of her work in Uganda, where she teaches English and math and is acting as development director for a piggery to pull residents out of poverty. Working with a group in Uganda, she hopes the piggery will help families become economically stable.
“The goal is to help them just stay above that (starvation) line,” she said after describing the region’s poverty.
She hopes to raise $35,000 while back home, enough to put a roof on the Kyarusozi primary school, build a women’s dorm at the Kyarusozi vocational school, and, most importantly for long-term stability, start that piggery — a place where they raise pigs.
Robben first visited Uganda in 2015 to teach English at a private school.
“They really want kids to learn English in our accent,” she said. She was there 10 weeks, and immediately felt compelled to return.
“I felt like God was calling me to go back, especially to the public” school, she said. Robben raised money through a GoFundMe account for that trip, pulling together about $15,000 for plane tickets, her visa and living expenses.
Her former administrator at Breese, who is now working in Carlyle, said Robben was always passionate about helping children and had started talking about Uganda after hearing of opportunities there from others.
“We kind of knew it was going to go that way,” Kerrick Rahm said. “But we had just finished (the year-end) evaluation, and she gave me this smile and said ‘Well I’m going to Uganda for a year and a half.’”
Rahm said Robben has been back to the Breese school to share her Uganda experience with the Illinois students.
“Her staff loved her, her students loved her,” Rahm said of her teaching in Breese.
In Uganda, Robben would visit students’ homes along with the deputy teacher, where she saw “the worst poverty of my life.”
The teachers used the money from the GoFundMe donations to do things like pay for immediate medical needs, shoes for children, and to help plant kitchen gardens.
“It was pity then. ... I’ve made a lot of mistakes then. My intentions aren’t the same now,” she said. Now, she wants to help her students, and the vocational students, transform their own lives.
“The families are grateful, but we realized were were just putting a Band-Aid on it,” she said.
With more donations, she and the deputy teacher hope to provide five to 10 pigs to the vocational school. Students there would learn to care for and sell the pigs, hopefully leading to more lasting employment or economic stability.
“Education is the ticket,” she said.
Her class sizes in Uganda would have Illinois school districts in trouble. Her seventh-grade English class has 60 students; fifth grade math has a staggering 120 students. She teaches for free, and says the students are very well-behaved and she doesn’t spend any time on classroom management.
Robben said her volunteer role there did not take another person’s job away; if she were not there then another of the school’s teacher would have the additional classes.
Her bigger concern is providing long-term help, not just a handout. Robben has read a number of sources about the limited or even negative impact that charity can have on a population.
“You realize how small you are in the big picture of things. I’ve never felt like, ‘Oh, this is so great.’” she said of her work helping to develop the pig farm in Uganda. “But I enjoy doing it and would love to give my life to that.”
How to donate
- Donations are tax-deductible. Write checks to “Holy Cross Missions Center.” In order for the donation to go to work in Uganda, the memo line must contain “Katie Robben Uganda.” Mail to Katie Robben, PO Box 341, Breese, IL 62230. The Robben family says it will send the checks in batches to the Missions Center.
See Katherine speak
- In Carlyle, Katherine Robben will speak at 4 p.m. Saturday at St. Mary’s Catholic Church, 1171 Jefferson St. She will speak again there at 8 a.m. and 10 a.m. Sunday.
- In Webster Groves, Missouri, Katherine Robben will speak at 5 p.m. Aug. 26 at Annunciation Church, 12 West Glendale. She will speak again there at 8 a.m. and 10 a.m. Aug. 27.