Off the Northway: Local groups connect on Uganda aid

The Giving Circle supports an orphanage in Uganda and is also completing a school in the Jinga regio

Mark Bertrand, founder of a Saratoga Springs charity called The Giving Circle, was looking through pictures a friend had sent from Africa when he saw a child wearing a Ballston Spa school shirt.

Bertrand is a graduate of Ballston Spa High School, so there was an immediate connection, even if how the child got the shirt is a mystery. “Things just find their way there,” he said.

That ephemeral connection four years ago led to The Giving Circle launching an aid program in Uganda, a poor but fast-growing nation of 36 million people in central Africa.

The Giving Circle supports Koi Koi House (it’s an old nickname of Bertrand’s wife, Kelly), an orphanage there. The group is also completing a school in the Jinga region in the country’s northeast and has plans to do more.

Soroptimist International of Saratoga County just donated $7,000 to pay for building a birthing center and health clinic in Kagoma Gate, a village of 800 that’s described as downtrodden even by Ugandan standards.

“I’ve seen quite a bit, and this is the poorest village in Uganda,” Bertrand said. “It is on the edge of a sugar cane planation. These people are like sugar cane slaves.”

Children are born in homes on dirt floors, and the rate of infant mortality is high, Bertrand said.

The Soroptimist donation, though it doesn’t sound like much by U.S. construction standards, should be enough for the first phase of the birthing center, which will be a building with beds.

“Money goes a long way there,” Bertrand said. “That $7,000 is really a huge gift to help us. It will allow women to give birth in safer, cleaner conditions.”

Soroptimist International is a service organization of business and professional women.

“Soroptimist helps other women and girls by giving them the resources to create positive change — for themselves, their families, their communities and the world. What better way for our Saratoga club to implement this mission than by working alongside The Giving Circle to improve the birthing process in Kagoma Gate,” Lyn Whaley, president of Soroptimists’ Saratoga chapter, said in a statement on the donation.

Another $1,000 will come from proceeds of a run-a-thon at Saratoga Springs High School organized by Ally Cirenza, a high school senior who went to Uganda last winter with AOET, another relief organization with local ties.

Bertrand, The Giving Circle’s Uganda team leader, estimated he’s been to the country 10 times in recent years, leading groups of other volunteers. He’s going back in October.

“The Soroptimist Birthing Center and Health Clinic is critically needed in Kagoma Gate,” he said. “I have traveled to this village many times now and am always shocked at the horrible living conditions. Children die every day of malnutrition and preventable disease in this village.”

The Giving Circle was started in 2005 after Bertrand watched television coverage of Hurricane Katrina. “My wife and I always wanted to found a charity,” said Bertrand, 54, a retired strength and conditioning coach.

That Christmas, the new volunteer group sent two tractor-trailers of Christmas gifts to the stricken South for a “Cajun Christmas,” and that led to a

long-term relationship with the community of Waveland, Miss., on the Gulf Coast. The Giving Circle has been building houses and providing other relief. That relationship continues, along with the work in Africa.

The Giving Circle’s website allows people to buy “virtual bricks” for $5 apiece to help finish the school and pay for other projects. The address is

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