Drawing a bead on misery

Mission to Uganda
By SHARON STEEL  |  April 23, 2008


It’s not uncommon for documentary photographer Karen Sparacio to get phone calls from Uganda at 3 am. It’s inevitable, actually, considering that there are 100 women living there who depend on her for survival. Sparacio is the one-woman force behind Project Have Hope (projecthavehope.org), a local foundation she created after her first trip to Uganda — on assignment to shoot pictures for relief organizations.

During that visit, the Malden resident was invited to the Acholi Quarter, just outside Kampala, the country’s capital, and home to refugees displaced from the war-torn north. “I spent two and a half weeks photographing in the community,” says Sparacio. “I heard their stories — the horror stories of being beaten, raped; family members killed; their homes, land burned and taken away from them. When it came time for me to hop on the plane, I couldn’t just leave and say, ‘Bye, have a nice life!’ ”

Sparacio befriended a group of women and decided to bring the colorful necklaces and bracelets they made using beads from recycled paper back to the States to sell — raising money that would empower the women, as well as educate them and their children. What began with a group of 55 women quickly swelled to 100. In addition to selling the jewelry at local craft fairs, such as the Mayfair (May 4, Harvard Square), the Cultural Survival Bazaar (May 31 and June 1, Amherst), and the Cambridge River Festival (June 14, Memorial Drive, Cambridge), Sparacio took inspiration from the women themselves and launched a small-loans program akin to the micro-lending organization kiva.org.

“One of my focuses for Project Have Hope is to create something that’s more sustainable for the women,” says Sparacio. The nonprofit has enrolled 18 women in vocational training programs, and 22 have participated in an adult literacy program. In January, Sparacio added what she calls a “high-risk jumbo loans” plan to jump-start bigger business ventures, such as opening a water kiosk or a second-hand clothing business.

In the two years since she began Project Have Hope, Sparacio has also sponsored 73 Ugandan children in school, and she points to education as one of the main goals of her multifold mission. Sparacio, who still shoots weddings to make her living, in between selling the paper-bead jewelry and running Project Have Hope (“Yeah. Want to help me?” she jokes, when asked whether she does it all single-handedly), returns to Uganda in early May. She’ll continue to record on a blog (projecthavehope.org/blog) journal entries that chronicle her experience there. Some past entries are hopeful. Others reveal how helping others can, despite the rewards, never feel good enough.

“It’s really difficult to look at what I’ve done — when you look at it and you say it, and you write the numbers down, you’re like — ‘Oh, that’s pretty cool, that I’ve done that in two years.’ But when you’re actually there, it seems like nothing. Because there are hundreds, thousands more children who need that help.”

For more information about Project Have Hope, to sponsor a child in the Acholi Quarter, or to purchase items from the online bead store, visit projecthavehope.org.

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  Topics: This Just In , Education, Education Issues, Literacy
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