La Cañada students set out to teach, reach Ugandans and learn valuable lessons in return

A contingent of high schoolers recently returned from a trip to Uganda, where they led workshops and demonstrations for students on everything from poetry to nutrition to mindfulness but were stunned at the lessons that awaited them there.

La Cañada High School rising juniors Audrey Melillo, Arianna de la Torre and Carolyn Gordon were joined by Flintridge Sacred Heart Academy rising junior Jordyn Hart and rising senior Francesca Christensen on a weeklong trip to the African nation in a Youth Vision trip organized under Ray United F.C. (RUFC).

Local student and soccer player Ray Wipfli formed the nonprofit in 2014 after visiting Uganda with mom Heather, associate professor of preventive medicine and international relations for USC’s Keck School of Medicine. Together the family created an annual soccer camp that rotates through villages in Uganda offering educational and health services along with games, sports and much needed equipment to thousands of youths.

The organization has continually expanded its partnerships with universities and programs local to Uganda, allowing for more participation from both nations.

Ray, now 16, explained the Youth Vision trip overlaps with the soccer camp and lets La Cañada students develop and raise funds for independent projects related to the needs of individual villages and also see RUFC at work.

“It came out of our original struggle of trying to communicate the need and what Uganda really was like and the kind of work we were doing and the work that needed to be done,” he said.

The idea is young people who attend Youth Vision trips become unofficial ambassadors of the Ugandan culture and Ray United. Talking to the girls who attended this year, the idea seems to have hit the mark.

Audrey, a natural-born writer, worked with award-winning Ugandan poet Harriet Anena on a self-expression workshop where students were asked to describe an emotion and its many associations, while health-focused Jordyn planted fruit trees and helped young people learn how to build a balanced dinner plate.

Carolyn took what she learned in year one of LCHS’s Peer mentoring program to lead a mindfulness and mental health workshop that taught kids to focus on their breathing and use laughter to resolve tension, while Arianna and Francesca taught germ prevention by building and demonstrating touch-free “Tippy Tap” hand-washing stations that went into 20 local schools.

“Literally thousands of students received access to Tippy Taps as a result of that,” Heather Wipfli said.

In between their self-led projects, the students visited the source of the Nile River and stood on the earth’s equator. They visited a refugee settlement, had a session with a faith healer and stayed up all night laughing and singing during an overnight stay with a local family.

“It was so incredibly powerful to hear their stories,” said Audrey, who hopes to study international relations. “I had no idea of the impact they’d have on me.”

Carolyn, who had the misfortune of getting sick on the flight to Africa but felt incredibly cared for throughout the trip, said she loved connecting with people whose lives are so different from her own. Francesca recalled playing peek-a-boo with a 5-year-old girl and realizing words weren’t necessary.

“It was kind of like this unspoken exchange — it was really, really special,” she said. “But those moments are so brief. That’s why I do think it’s important to further the work and go back and continue to make those connections as best as you can from such a distance.”

“You see the potential that is has, so you just want to foster that in the future,” Audrey agreed.

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