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Joy Ngobi, M.D., M.P.H.: Crafting hope for her hometown

A Ugandan group strings beads for the Jinja Jewelry Project. Profits go back into community initiatives to improve children’s lives through education and economic opportunities. (Photo: Joy Ngobi)

Joy Ngobi, M.D., M.P.H., knows hopelessness. One of her brothers was killed in a bar fight the week he graduated from college, and two more of her 11 siblings died of HIV—devastating Ngobi’s family, especially her mother.

The family experienced another blow when Ngobi’s sister—who had been taking care of the seven children her three brothers had left behind in addition to her own three kids—died of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.

Ngobi had moved from her native Uganda to the United States in 1994 to pursue a master’s degree in public health at the University of Minnesota. In 2003—the year her sister died—Ngobi completed her residency in anesthesiology at the University, but she constantly thought about how she could best help her family back home.

Going back to Uganda just wasn’t an option, Ngobi thought. She didn’t have enough money to support all of the kids herself, anyway. Plus, her husband, Gideon Ngobi, also had lost three siblings, who left behind 10 more orphans. They needed to think bigger.

So the Ngobis founded an organization to help empower their nieces and nephews—and other children in Joy’s home village and surrounding areas— to make good decisions and one day become financially independent.

It’s called the Hope Institute of Uganda, and it aims to change entire generations, one person at a time, by bringing them hope through education and economic opportunities.

Seeing potential

Joy Ngobi, M.D., M.P.H. (Photo: Mercy Health System)

To get the Hope Institute’s programs up and running, the Ngobis needed a source of revenue. On one of their visits to Uganda, Joy had an idea.

On this particular mission trip to Jinja in 2006, starving children desperately snatched extra bits of food from the American visitors while local women tried to sell them the jewelry they had made. The Americans bought the brightly colored necklaces, bracelets, and earrings by the dozen.

Then came Ngobi’s “aha” moment: What if she could provide a platform for these Ugandan women to sell more of their jewelry? Jinja, a town of about 100,000 residents northeast of Kampala, typically doesn’t attract that many tourists, so Ngobi wondered if she could help the women sell their jewelry back in the United States.

Then the jewelry-makers could make a better living for themselves and their families—and any extra money brought in by the jewelry sales could be put back into the community.

She decided to test her idea—first at church, where she usually sold between $250 to $500 worth of jewelry from Jinja at a time. Later, at a private jewelry party hosted by one of her colleagues at Mercy Hospital in Janesville, Wisconsin, where Ngobi now practices, she sold $2,200 worth of jewelry in one night.

“That really opened our eyes to the potential,” Ngobi says. “There are lots of people here who are willing to help, I’ve discovered that.”

Investing in people

On a previous mission trip to Uganda, the Ngobis—along with volunteers from their church and their Wisconsin community—had helped to build a church and pastor’s house in a Ugandan ghetto. After she conceived the idea for her Jinja Jewelry Project, Ngobi encouraged the church’s pastor to organize a group of local women and teach them the art of jewelry-making as a source of income.

And he did. Today the jewelry-making group in Jinja includes more than 40 people and is fair-trade certified, meaning that the artists are paid a fair price in advance for their products and work in a safe environment.

Through the Hope Institute, all Jinja Jewelry Project profits go to back into community initiatives that improve life for orphans and other needy children in Uganda, Ngobi says.

Proceeds from Jinja Jewelry Project sales have already provided 25 scholarships for children in Uganda.

“The government now provides free education for primary school till seventh grade, but they don’t buy school supplies or food,” she says. “You find that a lot of these families can’t send their kids to school because they don’t have $50 or $100 per year.”

Ngobi and her Hope Institute partners also have arranged youth conferences in Jinja, bringing together doctors, lawyers, and pastors from the area to “share life” with the young people, she says. Community leaders encourage kids to stay out of trouble and offer advice on how to get ahead—with their own success stories serving as proof that the kids can overcome the circumstances that surround them.

They’ve also helped to equip the local hospital and someday would like to establish a vocational school that teaches trades such as carpentry and—of course, jewelry-crafting—to help more Ugandans provide for themselves and their families.

Most of all, Ngobi says her work is about “giving hope to the hopeless.” And learning from her own family’s struggles, she knows that hope can make a world of difference.

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