Gave up all to bring hope to Uganda's disadvantaged children

By Isaac Baligema                            

Denis Ochien’s parents were killed by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) rebels in 2009. Being the eldest, he was left to fend for his four siblings, that is, two brothers and two sisters.

The future looked bleak until Irene Gleeson, heard about their plight and came to their rescue.

The Irene Gleeson Foundation (IGF) constructed a house for Ochien’s family, gave them goats as well as seedlings to cultivate on the land their parents left.

IGF is also educating the family in one of their schools in Padibe, Lamwo district.

Ochien’s family are not the only beneficiaries of this initiative. John Paul Kiffasi, the IGF country coordinator, says the organisation has constructed 40 other houses for orphans in Kitgum and Lamwo districts.

How IGF was born

Gleeson, 67, an Australian national, first came to Uganda in 1988. One thing that struck her was the imbalances between Australian and Ugandan children.

“My children and grandchildren had whatever they wanted, but this was not the case with African (Ugandan) children. Being a born-again Christian, I chose to redress the imbalance,” says Gleeson.

She had wanted to settle in Ethiopia, but a friend told her about LRA ravaging northern Uganda. She confirmed this when she visited Kitgum in the late 1980s.

On her return to Australia, Gleeson sold her property, including two beach houses, to set up her foundation.

Gleeson and her husband shipped their caravan to Mombasa and drove it to Kitgum. They settled under an old tamarind tree, where the caravan is still parked. From her caravan, Gleeson used to give food and medicine to orphans.

In 1992, rebels broke into the caravan. Gleeson’s husband fled and has never returned to Uganda. However, that was not the last Gleeson heard of the rebels. On many nights in her caravan, she would hear gunshots tearing through the night.

IGF transforms northern Uganda

IGF is educating 10,000 children, mostly orphans, in the foundation’s primary and vocational schools in Kitgum and Lamwo districts.

Every year, about 300 pupils complete Primary Seven. The foundation awards the best performing P7 pupils with bursaries for secondary education.

Kiffasi says the student numbers in IGF’s schools keeps swelling by the year and because of this, more structures are needed yet the foundation has a tight budget.

Every year, about 300 students graduate from the vocational schools. Most of these are employed in IGF and in other organisations in northern Uganda and South Sudan.

All the foundation’s four schools have clinics where children access free medical care. Serious cases are referred to the foundation’s hospice.

The organisation is also putting up a four-storeyed hospital in Kitgum.
“We intend to bring modern equipment from Australia to reduce maternal mortality,” says Kiffasi.

Meanwhile, the organisation is putting final touches to a four-storeyed block where vocational classes, such as carpentry, tailoring, brick laying will be conducted. 

The foundation is employing 420 Ugandans, most of whom are Kitgum locals.

In 2009, Gleeson appointed musician George Lubega, better known as Exodus, to be the international peace ambassador for IGF. Exodus has been able to source some funds for the organisation.

The foundation also has hostels for traumatised children where they are receive special care and counselling.

Gleeson’s health

In June this year, on a visit to Australia, Gleeson was diagnosed with cancer. The doctors told her she had few weeks to live, but it is now four months. “The devil is a liar. I was diagnosed with cancer, but I am not thinking of death, I am thinking of empowering these thousands of children to give them a future they deserve,” says Gleeson.

Although she misses her family, Gleeson says she will spend the rest of her life empowering children in northern Uganda.


Kiffasi says the organisation’s hospice needs an ambulance as some patients are brought in by wheelbarrows and bicycles.

“We need an ambulance to reach out to the patients in the community and monitor them,” he explained. 

While other NGOs are pulling out of northern Uganda after the LRA insurgency ended, Gleeson says the real work is now after the aftermath of the atrocities the LRA committed on the people of northern Uganda.

“The real work is now! Other NGOs are leaving and some of them give us furniture, but for us, we are just starting because there is a lot of rehabilitation that needs to be done after over 20 years of insurgency,” says Gleeson.

Many times Gleeson’s friends from America have sought to adopt some of the children under her care, but she turns them down.

“Adopting is not the best way to empower a child. Most of these children are traumatised and they need their culture, clan and values, all they need now is good education, nutrition, counselling and medication, not adoption,” says Gleeson.

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