Hands of hope

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Broken bones hasn’t stopped kind-hearted Casey giving until it hurts.

Big-hearted Casey McLellan didn’t mind a bit when she swapped her job at Queenstown’s swanky Eichardt’s Private Hotel for a spell of volunteering at a remote village orphanage in Uganda.

The 23-year-old bar worker made the 28,000km return journey last year and spent nearly four months helping traumatised African kids who’ve lost their parents to HIV/Aids.

“I’d never done anything like it before and it was an eye-opening as well as a heart-breaking experience,” McLellan says.

“Virtually a whole generation has been wiped out there by HIV and it’s easy to pick out the children left behind and who’ve been really affected by what’s happened.

“They have this sad, vacant look about them. There is just something missing.”

For McLellan, the solo adventure was the realisation of a longstanding ambition to become a volunteer worker in a troubled country.

She originally planned to travel to Kenya last winter but had to pull out three weeks beforehand when elections brought chaos to the region.

Instead, she found herself mucking in at the House of Hope orphanage and primary school in the Ugandan village of Nakateete, near the border with Rwanda.

Every morning she had a 90-minute walk to work, after a night spent in a house watched over by a guard armed with a bow and arrow.

“I didn’t feel I was in danger,” McLellan explains. “But I was staying in a very strict Muslim village and because I didn’t cover up like the other women, some people were a bit suspicious of me.”

The Kiwi was there to assist an “amazing” 24-year-old local called Jenifer Tumewizere, who’d spent four years battling to get the children’s accommodation and learning facilities up and running from scratch.

McLellan helped out teaching English. She also showed the kids – aged three to 14 – how to do maths by counting with stones.

“There were 168 children who came to the school each day and 18 who lived on site,” she says. “The vast majority came from families devastated by Aids but there were others who came to escape abusive fathers, and some older girls were there to avoid being married off.

“At school they got porridge once a day and also some flour and beans. For most, it was all they got to eat all day.”

McLellan admits she was “heartbroken” when she had to leave for home in August – despite having also broken an arm and some toes after being hit by a taxi that was being chased by police in the Ugandan capital, Kampala.

The Queenstowner was then devastated to learn the orphanage and school had been burned to the ground in April by a gang of local men, jealous it was being run by a woman – her enterprising friend Tumewizere.

But McLellan has been quick to jump to her African pal’s aid by organising a fundraising night for House of Hope here in the resort – at Subculture on June 13.

DJs giving their services free include Blackplanet, Sunshine Sound System, Alias, Skeptik, DJade, Jules and DJ Hori.

Local companies have also donated a host of goodies for raffles and auctions.

“To have the school and the orphanage destroyed has been devastating for the children in that village,” McLellan says.

“They’re looking to rebuild it in a year’s time, once more of the local people are on their side so something similar doesn’t happen again.

“Just $US10,000 ($NZ15,500) would be enough to do the work, which is a small amount to us but a huge sum over there.

“If Queenstown can help raise a bit towards that from the Subculture night, I’ll be stoked.”