Fifteen years after the Agnes Zabali Boys and Girls Club of Kamengo, Uganda opened its doors, the centre and its Canada-Africa Community Health Alliance is still providing hot meals and a safe place for vulnerable children to learn and grow, despite the global pandemic.
Almost 30 years before the Ugandan facility’s opening, single mom Agnes Zabali reached out to the Boys and Girls Club of Ottawa for support with her three young boys.
She had faith in the club’s mission of providing a safe haven for vulnerable and at-risk children.
Zabali’s son, Jimmy Sebulime, was just 12 when his jaw dropped in awe, as he was handed a soccer ball as a gift.
It was made from synthetic leather, stitched around the inflater rubber-like bladder, quite unlike the makeshift ball he and his two older brothers kick around in Kamengo a few months before, making due with some cloth, cardboard and duct tape.
Sebulime, along with his brothers, had just finished playing a game of soccer with a group of boys they met at the Boys and Girls Club, at the corner of Hog’s Back Road and Prince of Wales Drive.
After the game, one of the club caregivers thrust the ball they’d been using into his hands and said, “Here, this is for you…Take it.”
Flabbergasted by the gesture, Sublime says he wasn’t sure whether his limited English had correctly translated what that caregiver was attempting to say, but then something else happened: The caregiver turned to he and his brothers and asked, “You’re coming back, right?”
It was in that moment that Sebulime knew his life was going to transform for the better.
“We come from a community that didn’t have anything for kid.”
Sebulime didn’t have to venture too far to get to the Ottawa Boys and Girls Club either, as he lived across the street, in a one-bedroom apartment with his family.
When recalling that moment a good 30 years after the fact, Sublime describes how how mother’s smile said it all.
“She beamed from ear to ear” when greeting them at the front door after that first game.
Watching his mother’s tired eyes ease into a broad smile laid to rest any fears Sebulime had been wrestling with since touching down on frozen land 11,401 kilometres from their tiny farming community in Kamengo, the week before.
"Years later, when we went back to visit my grandmother [in Uganda], everyone was either sick or died. Perfectly strong men either got sick or died."
Sebulime looks back at how Zabali worked three jobs over a span of a year, just so her three sons could immigrate to Ottawa for an improved quality of life.
None of it, he says, would have been possible if it weren't for the support of the Boys and Girls Club of Ottawa.
"In between middle school, at St. Joe's, and high school at Notre Dame, we spent summers in soccer tournaments and going on field trips to New York. It was because of the Boys and Girls Club."
Sebulime now runs a Boys and Girls Club out of the Agnes Zabali Community Center in Kamengo, Uganda.
His efforts these days are all online, because of the pandemic, but its premise remains the same. Caregivers at the club in Kamengo are trained to provide a safe place to play, while also opening the opportunity for all children to be at ease and themselves and enjoy at least one nutritious meal a day.