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When Jan and Jim Tanis took their honeymoon to Uganda nearly 10 years ago, little did they know that they’d come home to Sedona with far more than just some souvenirs.

It was in the small village of Bwindi that they met a teenage boy name Brian, who pointed out that the small wooden gorilla they had just purchased was something he had carved. They talked with him for a while and they exchanged emails addresses, which he could access at his school.


“He’s the one who started all of this,” Jan said, laughing.

After corresponding with the couple, he asked if they could sponsor him to go to high school. Jan said a class trip away from home opened Brian’s eyes to the devastation in his village, where many children are poor, orphaned and the entire population is affected by AIDS, malaria, typhoid and unemployment.

Brian asked the Tanises if they could help these young people in the same way they’d helped him. Public schools are practically nonexistent in Uganda so to ensure a better education, students must attend private schools. They agreed and from that the nonprofit Bwindi Community Program was born and since then has helped hundreds of children in one way or another.
“Poverty as we know is common every day life for them,” Jim said.

Three years after meeting Brian and helping with his education, the foundation sponsored 20 students. Sponsorship not only includes their education but since many of the students live far from the school, their room and board for 10 months a year. Today, through their foundation, as well as a partnership formed earlier this year with a sister program, the two charities are able to sponsor 90 primary-school-aged children, 38 students in secondary school as well as nine in vocational school and one in college.

The couple said they often have to fight the urge to help everyone there and instead focus on those they are able to assist.

“It’s tough but our restriction is, the students have to come from this particular primary school,” he said. “We don’t sponsor kids from just anywhere in the country.”

Jan added, “It’s really hard but since the first day we decided to focus on this one area. We don’t have money going to schools we don’t know. We felt it best to focus our time, energy and funding to a school that we trust. We have a wonderful group of volunteers there in Uganda that assist us. That’s made things so much easier.”

In addition to educating students, BCP also accepts donations for general use and special projects as determined by its governing board. For example completing an assembly hall at the primary school and digging wells, rainwater collection and a water filtration system for the secondary school. They have also provided each student with solar-powered lanterns in order for them to read and study when at home on their school breaks since many of the homes have no electricity.

The annual cost to sponsor a child in primary school is about $450 while secondary schooling is around $900 each year. College and vocational school can vary depending on where they go. This year, the school added a counselor position, thanks to the two charities, to help incoming secondary-school students transition from small-village life to larger schools, and assist with their career choices after graduation.

They said the vast majority of donors will sponsor a child at least through the end of high school. But there is no obligation — they can leave the program at any time. And in the event a donor cannot afford the full amount, they can be paired with someone else who may not be able to afford the full annual tuition.

“They [donors] become very interested in the child,” he said. “We know people who have taken the photo of the child they’re sponsoring to family reunions. Family members will ask, ‘Who is this?’ They then tell them the story. There is a great bond that forms.”

Sedona residents Judd and Jennifer White said they were moved by the work of the Tanises to the point that they decided to sponsor a student themselves.

“Without any solicitation from them, we asked what we could do to help and that began our multi-year commitment to fund the annual educational cost of one of the students — Barbra Irakundi,” Judd White said. “She writes us periodically and her simple, heartfelt expressions of gratitude and the regular progress reports we receive from her teachers [through Jim and Jan] over the years have convinced us that it really is possible to make a difference in the life of a single child on the other side of the world, thanks to people like Jim and Jan. What better return on investment could there possibly be on our charitable contributions?”

Jim and Jan travel to Uganda every two years to visit each sponsored student and meet with school administrators, with whom they have a great relationship with and trust fully with the funding. They say nothing can replace that personal interaction with students and faculty.

“You look at those kids from primary through the end of secondary school and you see how they have blossomed,” Jim said. “Working half way around the world with a different culture is not the easiest thing and we often get discouraged and for a second we want to quit. But then we see the kids and talk to them and then we say, ‘Ah, we can put up with it.’ It’s just so rewarding.”

Both said they have no plans to slow down in regard to the work they put in for the foundation. But they do hope to someday pass that responsibility onto someone else. But until then, they’re happy to keep doing what they’re doing.

“If anybody had said to us in 2010 that by 2016 this is what we’d be doing, we would have run and locked the door,” Jan said with a laugh. “There’s no way you’d sign up for this. But it’s been wonderful.

“Watching these kids mature is what keeps me going. We have a vested interest in every single one of those children. We’re always thinking of what we can do for them and ways to better provide for them. When the ideas quit flowing is when I will get bored — but I don’t see that happening any time soon.”

BCP is always looking for those wishing to sponsor children or donate to its general fund. For more information on how to do so and the organization, visit bwindicommunityprogram.org.

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