From Gig Harbor to Uganda, warm gifts in the winter

Goodwill: High school students make blankets for a school in African village

of the GatewayDecember 25, 2013 

Carolyn Forseth, a junior at Gig Harbor High School, cuts up fleece to make a tie-blanket for St. Jude Elementary in Uganda.

KAREN MILLER/GATEWAY PHOTO

Students sat on the floor of the Gig Harbor High School commons to make blankets for students in Rubongi, Uganda.

Squares of colorful fleece, about two yards each, were stacked by twos. Then the sides were cut and tied together to make a warm, vibrant cover. Music played over the speakers as students worked.

The blankets will go to students at St. Jude Elementary in Rubongi. The school is supported by Circle of Friends in Action, a non-profit organization in Tacoma.

Carolyn Othieno, co-founder of COFIA, spoke to Kelly Indahl’s leadership class at Gig Harbor High recently.

Mitch Hice, a junior who is part of the leadership class, liked that the blankets were a hands-on way to help.

“It seems like, a lot of the time, you can donate change, and it goes to some place,” he said. “It’s really cool to see the direct impact.”

Othieno told the class that she visited the home of Rosemary, a fifth-grade girl at St. Jude, on her most recent trip to Rubongi.

Inside, the hut was bare, Othieno said. She asked Rosemary where she slept and if she had covers. Rosemary pointed to the floor and told Othieno she used her mother’s dress as a blanket.

Indahl’s leadership class planned the crafty charity event after they heard Othieno’s story. To warm students like Rosemary, they came up with the idea to make blankets. The handmade gifts will be in a container, also full of school supplies, and it will be sent to St. Jude in a few weeks.

Mia Henderson and Madison Dibari had fabric with music notes spread out in front of them. Both girls sing in the choir. Henderson wants to be a musical therapist and Dibari a middle school music teacher.

Henderson heard about the blanket making earlier in the day and wanted to help.

Othieno founded COFIA with her sister, Gloria Othieno, who also is from Rubongi. When Gloria touched down in the United States in the late-1990s, customs asked to see her bags. She had none.

“It was a tough journey,” she said of her trip to Seattle. “Now, it’s become my home.”

Twenty years old, she went by bus from Kampala to neighboring Nairobi, and then flew to New York City. Finally, she landed in the Seattle area, through an acquaintance. She went through Tacoma Community College, then Washington State University.

Carolyn Othieno followed in her footsteps in 2000. Their mother lives in Kampala.

The Othienos’ cousins, Mercy Akola, 17, and Shalom Aburu, 18, visited the high school to see the students’ blankets. The girls arrived in the United States last week from Uganda. They will attend Pierce College.

Akola called the blankets “beautiful,” and Aburu called them “creative.”

Students in Rubongi rarely make it past the elementary level. Access to education is limited, “yet they want it so bad, they want it so desperately,” Carolyn Othieno said.

COFIA started by helping students from the village get to Kampala, about five hours from Rubongi, but after expenses grew, the non-profit realized adopting was the best option for all students, Othieno said.

Carolyn Forseth, a junior, likes the international element of the blankets. Forseth helped Kaitlynne Dougil cut and tie a green football-themed blanket.

Dibari was inspired by Carolyn Othieno’s visit to the class. She appreciated that, in a situation with so many negatives, Othieno focused on positives.

“It really opened my eyes that, even on my worst days, I have it better than most people,” Dibari said.

The blankets were part of the high school’s international effort as part of We Day. Peninsula School District schools are participating in the event as part of the year-long We Act effort.When schools and youth groups register for We Act, they earn a “ticket” to We Day, a big year-end event.

Othieno said it’s inspiring to see students engage with the world, build leadership skills and help others.

“The response from young people is just amazing,” she said while she looked at the sea of blanket-makers. “I can’t wait to see one of them lead the World Health Organization or the U.N.”

It’s also not what the high-schoolers learn, it’s the elementary students in Rubongi who want to go to high school and get an education.

“The kids are going to be excited,” Gloria Othieno said. “All of the blankets are for them, and they barely have anything.”

More information about COFIA can be found via its Facebook page. Donations can be made at any Columbia Bank location.

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