Program Connects Local Volunteers With Ugandan Pen Pals

Connecting communities is the goal for the Mpambara-Cox Foundation, a Rockville-based non-profit that works to partner educational, faith based, youth and women’s groups between Africa and the United States.Uganda

The organization has a program that connects local volunteers with pen pals in Uganda to create friendships and encourage them to stay in school.

I caught up with founder and chair Anita Mpambara Cox about how she is using volunteers in Montgomery County to make a difference to those in third world countries.

How and when did the Uganda pen pal program get started?

The pen pal program started in 2008 as part of a cross-cultural communication initiative designed to connect kids.  It is one of the programs under the U.S.-Africa Schools Partnering Intiative (USASPI) under which my foundation – The Mpambara-Cox Foundation – partnered schools in Uganda with schools in Maryland. (Fun Fact: Did you know that Maryland and Uganda are partnered because they have the same colours in their flags (google it!).”

How successful has it been?

“The program exceeded my expectations from the very first letters in 2008. For 3 years – 2008 till 2011 – we run the program through three elementary school partnerships: two in Maryland and one in Kentucky. The children exchanged letters. The program grew very fast with lots of interest on both sides but it outgrew the budget we had and we could not expand it. The partnerships were for a three year duration.”

Why did you start it?

The idea was born out of a volunteering session at my son’s school during his 3rd grade. Every week, among other things, I gave the weekly spelling test. One of the boys that I had known since kindergarten was failing his 20 word spelling test that Friday and I really couldn’t figure out why he was doing so poorly when normally he would know the words on that list with few problems if any. I finally took him to the corridor to try a quiter space but it did not work. I asked him what the matter was and he told me that he was hungry. I said to him that it was about 2 hours to lunch and he groaned and rolled his eyes. It was only about 10am and so I asked if he hadn’t had any breakfast. He said he hadn’t and I asked why. He told me he didn’t want to eat what his mother gave him. So there he was, hungry and unable to concentrate and failing a test. There was nothing that I tried that worked short of giving him something to eat and then getting him to re-engage.

As I drove home that day, I thought of the African children from my native Uganda for whom a meal in school doesn’t exist and who go to school every morning hungry. Then I thought of the third grade boy who had no way of knowing that a meal is actually a blessing. He took his breakfast completely for granted. I wanted this third grade boy to get to know what life was like when breakfast is the exception that might be offered only say 14 days of the 365 days in a year and that he had to endure that hunger daily and still be in class. In the end he only got 4 words out of 20 right.

More than anything, I wanted both sets of children to find out that they have essentially the same dreams and that they can learn from each other and help each other and for the American children to be empowered to help. But also for the African children who receive but are denied the opportunity to give, to also be empowered to know that they too can make a difference and that reciprocity is not about giving in equal measure. Helping someone to learn about your world is a form of giving, an exchange of letters can empower both kids.

How can people participate?

By contacting us at and requesting to join the penpal program.

We are planning to start a program that allows interested participants to select a penpal on-line. This is a move away from running the program only through schools and it will involve the wider public. Individual families can choose to join the program and select a child. It is the same theory as say Compassion or World Vision but this is a program that is based in education and not in religon; it embraces all faiths and is designed to reach a wider socio-economic group because of the low cost of the program. Our program will be only $25 per month with part of the money benefitting the school that the African pen-pal child attends in Uganda.  This will be available via our website and Facebook page hopefully this summer. School conditions will improve for our partner schools in Uganda where the governement spends $7 per child per year for primary/elementary schoolchildren.

What is your hope for the program?

That our program benefits two sets of children in that:

1) American children learn empathy and compassion in a world that is full of materialism. by connecting with a childin Africa. It also allows the African narrative to be controlled by Africans themselves and not a film, a new story, a book or any other means that can be filtered. It is direct, authentic, engaging and most of educational.

2) That the African child, living in impoverished conditions, will hold onto the dream of obtaining an education by remaining in school. In our partner schools, 70% drop out of school by grade 5. Our foundation programs in Africa help children remain in school. The penpal program is one that brings so much excitement in a school and imparts a global perspective in the life of a child that has no reading books, no TV, no computer and no library. It is thier little window to the world and it is coming to them from a peer that is in the world’s most powerful country. That is a powerful thing and it is set on a peer-to-peer template which is one of the most effective methods of learning.

Find more information about the Mpambara-Cox Foundation and the pen pal program through their website here.

Valerie Bonk

About Valerie Bonk

Valerie Bonk is a multimedia reporter and community engagement specialist with Montgomery Community Media (MCM).


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