By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
The throbbing of animal-skin drums, some almost as tall as the boys pounding them, fills a banquet room at Cityplace while girls dressed in African wax cloth, with short grass skirts tied like bustles around their waists and bells around their ankles, stamp out an ancient rhythm. Lawyers and judges watch 22 exuberant children, ages 6 to 18, perform a dance from Uganda. The girls flip their ponytails and roll their heads in unison, wide smiles of unabashed joy on every face. When the dance ends, members of the audience look momentarily stunned and then burst into applause. As they leave the performance of the Children of Uganda's dance troupe, they pull out their checkbooks.
It's a reaction that has followed the children since January as they have traveled around the United States, performing at universities and theaters in 31 cities from Vermont to California. (In Dallas, they performed short versions of their program for a church and a lawyers' professional group.) All have lost parents to HIV/AIDS and are raising money for four orphanages back home. Their efforts go to provide food, medicine, shelter and education for about 750 children like them.
But the Dallas stop is special: It's the home of Alexis Hefley, a Texan who founded the Uganda Children's Charity Foundation (UCCF) and is beaming from the sidelines, hugging children as they change their costumes and slip on matching T-shirts.
The critically acclaimed group has toured the United States every two years since 1994, when Hefley arranged their first visit. Since then, Hefley has split her time between Kampala, the capital of Uganda, and Dallas, where she lives in the Munger Historical District with four orphans attending local schools.
It's a journey Hefley never anticipated when she left her job in banking 15 years ago.
Hefley graduated from Texas A&M University in 1981 with a business degree. She went to work as a money broker, enjoying bankers' hours and holidays, which left time for a busy social life and vacations.
But a decade into her career, Hefley felt something was missing. She had friends with a zeal for their careers and hobbies that she'd never experienced. "I longed to know what it meant to have a passion," Hefley says. She wanted a "calling."
After a weeklong fast during an Episcopal retreat, Hefley quit her job, prepared to go "anywhere God sent me." She spent a year at the Servant Leadership School in Washington, D.C., where volunteers of all faiths train for work with the needy. After getting to know Congressman Tony Hall, now ambassador to the U.N.-Rome and a longtime advocate for the poor, Hefley learned about the huge numbers of children in Africa orphaned by HIV/AIDS.
In the summer of 1993, Hefley visited Uganda at the invitation of the country's first lady, Janet Musevani. There she met "Sister Rose," who was running an orphanage in Kampala caring for children who had lost one or both parents to what Ugandans called "the thin man's disease."
About 120 children lived in two large homes. "They had one tap of running water, really terrible rats the size of small dogs and ate one meal a day," Hefley says. "Not all of the kids had shoes."
But it wasn't a grim place. "Sister Rose was more like a Whoopi Goldberg nun," says Hefley. "She was teaching them cultural dances, and people would hire them to perform." The money the children raised went to support the orphanage.
Hefley lived and worked with Sister Rose. "I loved watching the children sing and dance," Hefley says. In 1994, she brought a small group to the States for a six-city performance tour. The tour was financially successful and had a positive impact on the students. But the operation needed more organized funding. In 1995, Hefley moved to Dallas to found the UCCF, which now raises money through the tours, individual donations and sponsors who provide school fees.
Hefley brought the children to America to perform again in 1996 and 1998. The reviews were positive, and the decision was made to bring in a talent management group. "We wanted to get them to a more professional level," says Hefley. Today, children in the orphanage learn to sing, dance and play instruments like drums and the adungu, an African harp. The best--based on talent, academics and behavior--are chosen to tour. Eleven performers on the 2006 tour have been to the United States on previous trips; 11 are new. A former student, Peter Kasule, acts as master of ceremonies. Everything from the native instruments to the bright costumes is first-rate, but the charm of the children is what most impresses.
Hefley's involvement with the group has changed over the years. In 1996, UCCF provided scholarships for three Ugandan students to study in Dallas. More followed. They live with Hefley while attending high school or college.
Last week, the children visited a Dallas Payless ShoeSource, where each picked out one pair of school shoes and one pair of fun shoes. "Most of them ended up getting the second pair for their siblings or friends back in Uganda," says Donna Malouf, a Dallas UCCF volunteer who underwrote the shoe-shopping spree with volunteer Karen Raley.
The children's tour also raises awareness of the impact AIDS has had on African children. Hefley estimates that Uganda has about 2.4 million orphans in a country with only 27 million people.
Bernard, 18, and his two younger brothers were abandoned by their parents. He has no idea if they are alive or dead. Bernard is touring for the fifth and last time with the group; he'll enroll in college later this year to study music and dance. "I want to help other children know their culture, to know where they come from," he says. "We can have the sadness about the problems we have, but we can perform, and we do it with joy."
Deborah Nakiduu, director of the biggest orphanage supported by UCCF, has accompanied the children on this trip; 15 of the performers live in her orphanage or at nearby boarding schools. About 20 of her wards are HIV-positive. "We treat them, take them to hospital, get their drugs and drive them to clinics," Nakiduu says.
She's seen lives changed because of the tour and the foundation started by Hefley. "It is fun doing something they love," Nakiduu says. "They're so poor, and they get on a plane and go to America. They forget all they've gone through."
Hefley, who doesn't have a husband or children, found not only a calling but a family. At one time, Hefley had eight students living with her, including Kasule, who attended the Arts Magnet High School. He took a semester off from college, where he is studying music technology, to serve as the tour's assistant artistic director.
"It's lucky we have this house in Munger Place," she says, "where a white woman living with African kids fits right in. I have the best of both worlds."
The Ugandan children's biggest cultural adjustment to America, says Hefley, is the behavior of American teenagers. "They are shocked at the way young people treat adults without respect," Hefley says. "Manners are so valued in Uganda. Food fights at school left them appalled."
Hefley hopes that the Children's Tour helps dispel Americans' most common misperception about Africa: that because of all the political turmoil, disease and war, there is no hope. "The Children of Uganda shows the positive side," Hefley says. "They are creating hope for themselves and the other children."