Minnesota ministry of three helps Uganda widows

  • Article by: RANDY FURST , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 26, 2008 - 11:16 PM

The Dorcas Widows Fund, named for a woman in the Bible known for her charitable deeds, has been started by three Minnesota women to help destitute widows in Uganda.

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From left, Carol Vogt, Lisa Tschetter and Kari Miller displayed some of the jewelry made by women in Uganda. The three have organized the Dorcas Widows Fund to raise money for Ugandan widows who were forced out of their homes after their husbands died and the husbands’ relatives seized their property.

Photo: David Brewster, Star Tribune

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The necklaces and bracelets worn by Minnesota doctors, soccer moms and parishioners are bringing new hope to the Ugandan widows who created them.

Touched by the extraordinary lives of a group of about 85 women living in Kampala, the capital of Uganda, Kari Miller, a St. Louis Park schoolteacher, enlisted the help of her lifelong friend, Lisa Tschetter, and Carol Vogt, an Edina widow, to found the Dorcas Widows Fund, named for a biblical character who cared for widows.

Over the past year, they have raised money to help the widows get food, medical care and education for their children. The three Minnesota women also have an ambitious project to build housing units on land they purchased near Kampala.

The Ugandan women, and their children, were thrown out of their homes after their husbands died, often from HIV/AIDS, in accordance with local custom permitting relatives of the deceased husband or members of his clan to seize his property. About half the women have AIDS or are HIV-positive themselves.

"It is the joy of my life," Miller, 37, said of the effort that has raised $47,000 so far. "I think about it when I get up in the morning, and I think about when I go to bed at night. It was what I was created to do."

Tim Bettenga, an Eden Prairie attorney who has traveled to Uganda six times to work on land-grabbing cases, says he is familiar with the Dorcas widows and is impressed by the work of the three women.

"I think it is a phenomenal example of a grass-roots experiment that started with a vision by these women in Minnesota because of a need," he said. "They are impacting the Dorcas widows and impacting people here."

Starting with a chat

Miller, a frequent traveler to Africa -- her church sponsored children in Uganda -- teaches fourth grade at Susan Lindgren Intermediate School. But last year, she took a leave of absence to live in Uganda and see how she might be able to help. She got to know a man who works with street children, went to his office and struck up a conversation with the woman who was cleaning the offices, Joyce Okwanga.

Okwanga was part of a support group called the Dorcas Widows Ministry. The Dorcas widows are mainly Christian but include some Muslims. They care for one another, including taking in children when one of them dies of AIDS. Many of their husbands have died of AIDS or were killed in the war in the northern part of the country.

"They all ended up in the same slum area," said Miller. "It's called Nakawa. They are living in condemned houses. Some are mud homes that been have crudely created. One woman is living in an old bathhouse. The city has recently sold the land, so they are chasing them off.

"I became friends with them, and my heart just broke when I saw how sick some of them were. They had to take care of five or 10 children." When they are sick, they can't work, can't earn money, can't afford food and get sicker, she said. "I started giving them my own money."

Becoming a team of three

Back in Minnesota, Tschetter, 37, Miller's friend and a former computer consultant, was taking care of Miller's finances and saw her friend's mounting ATM withdrawals. Miller told her where the cash was going. Tschetter, a stay-at-home mom with two children and a husband, wanted to tell the widows' story to more people.

When Kari Miller left Uganda, the widows gave her gifts, including a number of necklaces and bracelets they had made.

Vogt, 48, an ex-mortgage banker, met Miller at a Bible study class. "I'm a widow, and she started talking about these widows and all their needs," recalls Vogt. "She had a big bag of beads and she dumped them out on the table. She wanted to show them." Vogt wanted to help, too.

"A team of one became a team of three," Miller said. The three suburban women cooked up the idea of paying the widows to make necklaces, which they'd sell in Minnesota.

The Dorcas Widows Fund was born. "It was a little intimidating, creating a 501(c)(3)," a nonprofit entity, said Tschetter. Keri Miller's father, Dennis Miller, president of Church Development Inc., a nonprofit organization, offered to make the Dorcas Widows Fund one of his group's projects. None of the three women is paid, but they have hired a woman in Kampala who doles out money to meet emergency needs of the widows, sending detailed monthly reports back to Minnesota.

Vogt visited the Dorcas widows in November, and Tschetter will be going there in June, with Miller. Coordinating with the Dorcas Ministry, they have bought 2.85 acres of land just outside Kampala, and plan to build housing units in phases. They plan to apply for special grants in the United States, and hope to raise about $300,000.

During an interview, the three women, seated on a sofa in Vogt's house, were asked whether they thought they'd be able to raise the money.

"Yes," they said in unison.

"We've got the drive and the passion, and we've got to keep moving," Miller said.

Staff researcher John Wareham contributed to this article. Randy Furst • 612-673-7382

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