Originally created 04/25/06

Students will 'commute' to help children of Uganda

In 2003, California college students Jason Russell, Bobby Bailey and Laren Poole ventured to Africa on a filmmaking adventure. What the three friends did not expect was to uncover a disturbing tale that few outside of Uganda had ever witnessed.

For about 20 years, a civil war has been raging in northern Uganda. The Lord's Resistance Army has built up its numbers by kidnapping children (on average, ages 5 to 12), at night, brainwashing them with violence and bloodshed, and forcing them to fight as child soldiers. To escape this fate, children leave their homes each night to sleep together unsupervised in centralized areas, where the LRA won't go to look for them.

The Americans followed these night commuters and even met some who had escaped from the LRA. They filmed their experience, documented it and have set up an organization called Invisible Children, which has been traveling the country to make people aware of the children in Uganda and such children all over the world.

The film hopefully will be released to U.S. theaters next year.

A rough cut of the documentary, which tells the story of four boys and the emotional and devastating conditions Ugandan children face, was shown March 31 after classes at South Aiken High School. People from the Invisible Children organization spoke to students about the atrocities occurring in northern Uganda and answered questions about the film project and its purpose.

These visitors announced a Global Night Commute to take place Saturday. That night, thousands of children across America will be commuting like the children in Uganda to specified locations in the country to "lie down" for what they believe.

David Neira, 17, of South Aiken High School, organized a location at Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Aiken and has, with many others, spread the word about the project.

By establishing this rally point, David said, he hopes to persuade more people to attend the event and try to make a difference.

When David was asked about his involvement in the project, he said, "What I've learned the most is that each and every one of us really does have the capability to change the world."

He related how many teens have heard this and never really believed it.

For David, the project became more than a foreign crisis.

"I wanted to get involved and make a difference; I wanted to do more than just send a few dollars," he said.

To fully understand the difference that one individual can make, David says, "All you have to do is take the first step."

By attending the event, teens across the country are demanding that the U.S. government take a stand and put an end to child abduction, the need for night commuting and the war in northern Uganda. While at the event, teens will be calling their senators and representatives, writing letters and drawing pictures for the children in Uganda and joining together to stand up for the rights of others in the country.

For more information concerning the organization and to watch the trailer for the film, visit www.invisiblechildren.com.

Justin Conklin, 17, is a junior at South Aiken High School.

The question remains: Are enough students getting that message?

Aiken High Principal Joe Padget said that message is getting through more than most people think.

What the recent drug busts at his school show, he said, is that out of a large population of students (Aiken High has 1,600), only a few are involved with drugs.

"We aren't talking about 1,600 kids," he said.

A school might not be overrun with drug users or drug dealers, but the truth is that random drug searches rarely net every offender.

"I don't think the number of people caught represents the actual number of drug users," said Liz Shepard, 18, a senior at Aiken High who said she believes many drug users find ways around searches.

Eric, from Fox Creek, had similar observations.

"People will still do it outside of school no matter about the searches," he said.

THAT'S THE CONSTANT struggle, Mr. Padget said. Even as schools check for drugs, the fact remains that there are drugs in the students' neighborhoods.

"The school is a reflection of the community and of society," he said. "You can look and see drug busts outside the school in the paper. There are drugs out here and the kids do them, but they are not the only ones."

Because the country has a drug problem, it's going to spill over into the classroom, he said.

"I don't know if 'culture' is the right word, but they go to movies and it's seen as the cool thing to do and it's not bad," Mr. Padget continued. "We've all seen the movies where they smoke marijuana and nothing gets done, nothing happens to them."

In the real world, Mr. Padget explained, especially in schools, that's not how it works. There are those looking out for lawbreakers and that is why it's so important that drug searches take place.

"In some instances, the kids are being told drug use is OK, and in reality, drugs are illegal. They are not only against school rules but also illegal," he said. "We have to play that up to kids and get them to understand that there are extreme rules and consequences (for drug use) and it can be more than just what happens at school.

"As a school, we have to say that because of that (illegality) we have to look at them 'under the influence' or 'in possession' and say that we don't uphold that or condone that in any way."

Chevon Howell, 17, a senior at Aiken High, isn't convinced that it makes a lot of difference.

"I think people are going to do drugs whether they are caught or not," he said.

The thing to do then, Mr. Lemaitre said, is to stress that teen drug use is less of a criminal problem and more of a public health problem.

"We want them to get the message that drug use is not good for their health or their futures," he said.

Mr. Carney seemed to agree.

"Using drugs is a poor decision in the first place but one of the dumbest places to have drugs is at school," he said. Whether a student gets caught in a search or is reported, Mr. Carney said, "You're going to get in trouble, one way or another."

Teen Board member Lauren Ellis contributed to this report.

Reach Kamille Bostick at (706) 823-3223 or kamille.bostick@augustachronicle.com.

Lie down with them

What: Global Night Commute in solidarity with Uganda's Invisible Children

When: 6:30 p.m. Saturday to 8:30 a.m. Sunday

Where: Bethlehem Lutheran Church, 902 Hitchcock Dr. S.W., Aiken; or Broad Street Ministry Center, 20 Broad St., (corner of Broad and Sibley streets).

How: Sign up at www.invisiblechildren.com or call David Neira at (803) 644-4561. For the Augusta commute, e-mail Peter Green at gncaugusta@hotmail.com.


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