Choir sings its way to a better life

In Uganda as a teenager, James Ochan lost both of his parents to AIDS. Then his grandmother died a few days after he went to live with her, leaving him and his two sisters with their uncle, who died a month later.

At 15 years old, James was forced to hawk mangos and other items to pay for school, at one point attempting to pass off cases of soda cans filled with dirt.

“One day, they caught me,” James said. “They gave me a lot of money, and I went away and they beat me. The next day, I did it again.”

He was among the more than 20 children from northern Uganda who performed Thursday night at La Crescenta Presbyterian Church — one stop of many across the world for the Watoto Children’s Choir.

The choral group for the Watoto ministries organization in Uganda is made up of children who have lost one or both of their parents to AIDS or war. The nonprofit uses the proceeds from fundraisers to buy land in Kampala to build homes and schools.

Since 1994, about 1,000 children have toured the world singing and dancing. One of them is 12-year-old Stella Amitorwot, who went to live with her grandmother when her mother died of AIDS. But it soon became apparent that her grandmother was too old to care for her.

Back then, Stella went without food and sold fruit to pay for school. All around her, orphans lived under a box for shelter, their only clothes a pair of shorts.

“Life was so unbearable,” she said.

Sitting on a bench wearing jeans, a red T-shirt and Converse shoes, 13-year-old Ronald Okello smiled when he talked about the long bus rides with the choir.

After his parents separated, he lived with his grandmother and worked in the fields to sell corn in the street. The early-morning work soiled his school clothes, made him late to class and thirsty for water that sickened him.

“That water will start to make your stomach start paining,” he said. “You’ll go home and you’ll eat cold food, and that’s why it’s good to be in Watoto.”

Since being adopted by Watoto, the children’s minds have moved from survival mode to dreaming.

James attends school five days a week with the others, and on the weekend, when his chores are finished, he plays soccer. He said he dreams of becoming a soccer player or a doctor, and when he prays to God, he prays for “other people back home in Africa.”

“When they brought me to Watoto, I started to feel comfortable,” he said. “Being a part of this program is helping me every day.”

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