Couple opens school in Uganda to help combat poverty
Patrick Asaba '06 and his wife, Jeni, say a St. Mike's MOVE service trip brought them together, inspiring lasting desire to help others
MINNEAPOLIS — On their way home from a family vacation in Africa, Patrick Asaba, a 2006 Saint Michael’s College mathematics graduate, made a scary decision with his wife, Jeni: They would build a school in Uganda. While unsure of how they could pull off such a large feat from 6,500 miles away, the Minnesota residents persisted.
On February 6, 2023, 230 children had their first day at Kunihira Primary School.
“My wife and I dreamed of building a school in Uganda since our first trip there as a couple in 2008,” Patrick Asaba said. “Having grown up there, I knew how much it was needed, but seeing that type of poverty was new to Jeni. We knew we had to do something to help, but we weren’t sure how to start.” Jeni said her husband’s love for helping others took firm root during MOVE service trips through Edmundite Campus Ministry at Saint Michael’s during his student days and stayed with him.
“I actually met him while on a MOVE-sponsored spring break trip to Kentucky, where we were building homes for the poor,” Jeni said, “and a couple years later we got married – but that’s another story!”
Over the course of several years, the couple did what they could to make a difference for those living in the village of Rubona on Uganda’s west side. One year Jeni brought 100 pairs of shoes for the children at a local school. Another year, their family brought a large donation of school supplies. But they didn’t feel it was enough.
“As we were flying home from Uganda in 2019, Patrick and I decided it was time. We needed to create a nonprofit and build a school,” Jeni said. “It was scary to say it out loud, because we knew it would take a lot of time and money to pull it off. But we had faith that if we showed people how it would help the village children, we’d find the support we needed.”
Within months the couple gained legal counsel and set up a 501c3 nonprofit organization — Building for Bridget.
“The name was inspired by a little girl, Bridget, who I met during one of my trips to Uganda years ago,” Jeni said. “Unlike the other kids who were shy around me, perhaps being unsure of my white skin, Bridget climbed right up on my lap and followed me everywhere I went. She had a bright light within her that I never wanted to go out. I wanted us to build for Bridget, and other Ugandan children with the goal to give them a brighter future.”
With a median income of around $600 a year, Ugandans live on less than $2 a day. Many families don’t allow their children to attend school, as it’s more beneficial to keep them home to help in the fields. By providing a quality education to the children in and around the village of Rubona, the Asabas are hoping to help break that cycle of poverty for those who attend Kunihira, which translates to “Hope.”
After just over two years of planning, the school opened at full capacity of February 6. The campus sits on approximately four acres and comprises seven buildings, including seven classrooms, a library, a kitchen, an administration building, a teacher’s lounge, space for a media center, a great hall and a bathroom facility. It serves two classes of preschool students, as well as grades Primary One through Primary Five.
“Kids who attend Kunihira used to have to walk miles to the nearest school, so we’re really happy to provide a quality school for them in the middle of the village,” Patrick said. “Our enrollment speaks to the need, and we’re so glad we could fill the gap for these kids. They deserve it.”
In addition to providing students with a safe space to learn, Kunihira also provides each student with two warm meals each day — a notable offering in a country that suffers from vast hunger. They also provide each child with two school uniforms, which are a requirement from the Ugandan government.
The Asabas said they didn’t build Kunihira to be like other Ugandan schools. Rather, their hope is it will be an example other schools can follow.
“Uganda is a heavily male-dominated country,” Patrick said. “That’s why we’re teaching equality in everything we do. Our headmistress and director of Operations are both women. We want the girls at Kunihira to see they are equal to the boys.”
The school also has an unusual “no hitting” policy. While it’s common for Ugandan teachers to discipline students with violence (e.g. whipping), the Asabas won’t tolerate it. They said any teacher who physically harms a student will be fired.
“We also focus on accessibility,” Jeni said. “It’s rare to see ramps at Ugandan schools, but it’s important to us that every child feels welcome at Kunihira. That’s why we built the school with accessibility in mind.”
In addition to having ramps on every building, smooth paths connect all the campus structures. The Asabas said they also plan to have wheelchairs and crutches on hand for children who need them (another rarity in Uganda).
“The day we opened was a beautiful day,” Jeni said. “Though we couldn’t be there physically, just seeing the photos and video of the children filling the campus made our hearts happy. Through a lot of hard work, and loads of generosity from so many people, we’re able to give these children a safe space to learn and dream.”
Of course, there is more work to be done. The Asabas said future projects, pending raised funds, include: building a playground and soccer field; constructing a wall around the property to ensure additional security; filling the media lab with technology so the students can prepare themselves for jobs in a tech-heavy world; establishing a garden to teach the children about agriculture while also contributing to the school’s food program; and more.
The couple saw founding of the school in Uganda “a means to complete a life-long dream of Patrick’s,” she said. “Over the last three years, Patrick worked incredibly hard to make this dream a reality. He sourced land, designed the building plans and project-managed constructing the entire campus from 6,500 miles away.” She said he also traveled to Uganda twice to make sure things were going as planned, “and it now provides a safe learning environment for 260 children in a rural part of western Uganda.”
In addition to his day job in Information Technology in Minnesota, Patrick volunteers his time to manage all aspects of the school that he is able to from afar. “Patrick is never one to seek accolades,” said Jeni. “He’s as humble as they come — but for this, I’d love for him to get some of the recognition he truly deserves. He’s making a huge difference in the lives of so many Ugandans.”
To learn more or donate to help fuel this work, visit www.buildingforbridget.org. Stay up to date on what is going on at the school, including seeing photos and videos from the school at the Building for Bridget online community. Sign up at https://b4b.influitive.com/users/sign_up Building for Bridget is a 501(c)(3) and all donations are tax-deductible.