By Tim Hunt
Lessons learned while serving orphans in UgandaUploaded: Jun 18, 2020
Back in 2000, Mike McCoy of Danville thought he had his retirement planned.
The Danville businessman owned a lot in a golf course community about an hour from Squaw Valley so he could spend winters skiing and his summers golfing. But God, through his wife Mary Ann, had a different plan. The AIDS epidemic was raging in sub-Saharan Africa, leaving thousands of children orphaned.
Mary Ann felt called to do something about it. That started in 2000 with a $250 donation to sponsor an orphaned child in Uganda. That led to a trip to Uganda to meet her and then bringing her to the United States—after a divine intervention at the U.S. embassy so she could get a visa—and then adopting her in 2005.
Meanwhile, Mary Ann and Mike sponsored other children and then Mike suggested she will need more help than the family checkbook, so she set up a non-profit organization in 2001. That launched her first trip to Uganda in 2002 and met and worked alongside a woman named Grace. In contrast to today, being HIV-positive meant death because the antiretrovirals (ARVs) drugs had limited distribution, mostly in the West.
The village where they worked was full of widows whose husbands had died of AIDS and it was just a matter of time before their wives would join them. Mary Ann was stunned when Grace told her she would not see her again and asked she take care of her children. Mary Ann promised she would do all she could, God willing. Grace died six weeks later. Mary Ann changed the group’s name to Children of Grace. Or, as Mike told members of the San Francisco Bay Barnabas Chapter, “Grace died, and Children of Grace was born.”
The organization’s mission is to provide an education and health care to children impacted by AIDS.
Mike made his first trip in 2004 and they decided to buy land and build a school while working with a local contact. That led to the first of several key lessons they learned. You need to understand the culture and you can only do that when you live there. After their experience with the local person, they parted ways and got out of the school business.
That led to them to move to Uganda instead of trying to manage the organization from the United States and check in with a couple of trips a year. They spent 10 years living in Uganda and have seen much fruit with 700 to 800 kids in their education program that is complemented by health care, a mentoring program with home visits and camping programs. Fourteen students have completed college, including two physicians in residency and another three in medical school.
He was particularly proud of one graduate who won a MasterCard Foundation scholarship to Arizona State (he started their program in the 2nd grade). At ASU he was awarded the Nelson Mandela Award as the most influential black person on campus. He received a 50 percent scholarship to attend the ASU business school, but had no way of raising the necessary $75,000 to match it. He didn’t tell the McCoy’s because he felt they already had done so much for him. Mike finally learned of it and, encouraged by a Barnabas partner, the two of them raised the $75k in one day. To date, they believe they have touched 10,000 kids.
Mike shared the key lessons they learned while working in an impoverished Third World Country with a high unemployment rate.
“If I walked in their shoes, believe me, I would have the same attitude. You know, you get deceived. You don’t have transparency. You get lied to and your money really doesn’t go where you think it’s going to go. Projects eventually get finished, but at two to four times the cost,”
That’s why living there and understanding the culture is critical to operating a successful program. When they built the school in 2005, he felt they had good controls in place and spent the money well. It wasn’t the same for their child sponsorship program that has more money flowing through it. They set up their own Ugandan non-profit in 2007.
Hiring local staff is easy because of the high unemployment rate, but training staff and getting everyone on the same page with the same goals—even in an English-speaking country—is a big challenge. He said he felt safe in the city where he and Mary Ann live during the day. They don’t go out at night—a good rule in most of sub-Saharan Africa. And, they typically use a driver to get around.
When doing business there, he always requires a memorandum of understanding that he said works very well with Ugandans. There’s also the understanding that to get anything done requires a facilitation fee. He uses local lawyers and noted that one time it took three submissions of the same paperwork before it moved ahead after the lawyer took care of the proper facilitation fee.
“I cannot give anybody a bribe. I ask the lawyer to get it done and send me the bill,” he said.
“I will tell you this. As I look back on it today, my wife and I would not trade the last 15 years for the best golf course home or skiing Squaw Valley or anything else we might have done. We had a chance to kind of learn life over again. I would encourage anyone.
“When we moved there, we were 65. Now we’re 75 and we’re there about six months a year. It’s kept us alive. It’s kept us healthy and we’ve learned so much. And we’ve seen God work in so many ways that you’ll never get a chance to experience here.”