In 2009, Kelsey Nielsen, a 22-year-old Temple senior studying social work, took a three-month leave from school to volunteer at an orphanage in Uganda. She was distraught to learn how many children there reside in orphanages despite having living family members; when she returned to Philly, she couldn’t stop thinking about helping them. So she went back and founded a new nonprofit in Uganda’s Jinja district: the Abide Family Center, which works with poverty-stricken families to help them develop new economic resources that would allow them to keep their kids. On a one-acre plot of land, Abide is equipped with classrooms, offices and a separate emergency-housing facility for individuals in dire circumstances. So far, Nielsen and her team have worked with 15 Ugandan families, and she doesn’t even live there full-time—yet. Come June, she’s buying a one-way plane ticket to Uganda, and Abide will swing into full-time operation, servicing an area that has the second highest number of orphans in the country.
What motivated you to go to Uganda in the first place?
I left Temple [because] I didn’t really know what I wanted to do yet, if social work was what I wanted to do. [But] I was super into the Invisible Children movement, and I was passionate about letting people know these kids are suffering a serious injustice, and we need to speak out and raise awareness about it.
How exactly will Abide help families keep their children?
Most of the children living in institutional care are there because their families are too poor to keep them at home. Uganda’s a country that has over 600 orphanages currently, and people just keep building more, and it really just doesn’t make sense.
We’re not going to be doing as much direct handouts as we are [going to focus on] income generation. So if they grow tomatoes or plantains, let’s help link them up to the larger market in town so they can make a higher income and support their kids at home. Microfinance is another big one. The idea behind it is very simple: investing in families and communities to help them get themselves out of poverty. ... There’s also other stuff: [Abide will offer] parenting classes and parenting discussion groups that are going to be led by our Ugandan social workers. Money-management classes, nutritional classes—[everything] that you would have at a center for vulnerable families in Philadelphia, just culturally appropriate for Uganda.
What was the biggest challenge in starting up?
Currently we [operate] under a nonprofit that already exists called the Antioch Group; they are an international missions organization in Washington, D.C. That’s been great because they handle our finances and are already a tax-exempt organization—[so] we don’t have to do that while we’re still in college. Eventually, as we grow as an organization, we would like to split off into our own nonprofit. We’ll have to be dually registered here in the States and in Uganda. The paperwork’s crazy. A lot of times, I take a step back and think, “What on Earth was I thinking doing this at the same time as finishing my senior year of college?”
Milton Street's Ex-Factor