The following post is one of a compilation of stories written for a photo book showing God’s work through International Teams in communities across north-eastern Uganda.
Olinga was just 13 years old when he ended up on the streets of Soroti. Like so many kids who call those streets home, Olinga was raised by just one parent, a harsh father with a penchant for beating his son with a cane. Under such circumstances, it’s little wonder that Olinga ran away. But it wasn’t long until the youngster discovered that life on the streets is no less cruel. For most children, it is a life of constant scavenging, sniffing glue to stay warm, and avoiding policemen who frequently beat small street dwellers. And like any boy would, Olinga did what he must to survive with no light at the end of his tunnel.
That is, until 2009 when he met Martin and Denis under the mango tree. In fact, Olinga is just one of many boys from around the streets of Soroti who slowly but surely found a place to belong under that tree thanks to two men who realized the desperate situation of so many youngsters.
“That was the year we decided to open an ‘office’ under the tree next to the field,” says Martin with a laugh, only half joking as he thinks back to those early days when he felt the Lord’s call to do something about the many boys he saw on the streets of Soroti. “It was a gradual process for sure. We just started by searching them out, making ourselves available, asking questions, and building trust.”
Those were the simple beginnings of what has since become the Freedom Boys ministry in Soroti town, started by Martin and Denis some five years ago. The truth is that it would be difficult to find two men better suited for such a job, because in their own way, both truly understand what it means to be a troubled youth. For Martin, it was the hardship of single parentage and the neglect of a father. For Denis it was the trauma of being abducted by rebels and forced to serve as a soldier. But ultimately, it is Denis and Martin’s love for the Lord and evidence of His redemption that truly marks their lives and ministry.
From the beginning, the Freedom Boys ministry has always been about helping Soroti’s street kids find a place to belong. For some, that means reconciling broken relationships so that a child like Olinga can return home. For others it means helping pay school fees. But for all of them, it simply means being that which perhaps a kid needs most: a listening and loving friend. “When a new boy comes to the streets, the other boys come right away and tell us about him,” Martin explains. “We handle the issue immediately, hopefully before it is out of hand. We talk to them, ask them questions, and encourage them to find a better way to live than on the streets.”
For most of the past five years, International Teams has been walking alongside Martin and Denis in their calling to help Soroti’s street kids, most recently helping them fund an actual office and drop-in center where the boys can congregate during the day. The team in Soroti also helped organize a citywide youth football (soccer) tournament in which the street boys were able to compete. “Football has truly been a unifying factor for the boys and anyone who wishes to help,” says Martin. And Olinga would be the first to agree. He captained the Freedom Boys team that won the championship two years ago.
In the years to come, Martin and Denis dream of expanding the Freedom Boys ministry in a number of ways. Just recently they purchased a nearby plot of land in which to train boys in agricultural work and equip them with practical vocational skills. They also hope to open an official rehabilitation center some day where boys can receive counseling and guidance while they transition off of the streets.
Today, Martin and Denis estimate that no more than 60 boys live on the streets of Soroti, less than half the number they found when they started in 2008. “I feel so excited when I see that impact,” says Martin wearing an ear-to-ear grin. “And most of them that we work with really want to go to school or to learn vocational skills, which is very possible.”
Olinga is one of them. For the past three years, he has been going to school thanks to sponsorship and excels in his studies. In 2012 he graduated from primary school, the equivalent of 8th grade, and will begin his secondary education in 2013. “I really like school a lot,” he says. “I want be a doctor when I get older.” Three years ago, that dream would have seemed utter fancy. But today, there is all the reason in the world to hope.
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Please pray for the street kids of Soroti, that they would find hope in the midst of their difficult situation and that the Lord would use people like Martin and Denis to truly touch the heart’s of youth across Soroti.