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Patience with a purpose

LOHS special education teacher Kathleen Sheridan will use her passion for travel and kids as a relief worker in war-torn Uganda
by: Vern Uyetake, Kathleen Sheridan

In grade school, teachers nicknamed Kathleen Sheridan 'Patience' for her special ability to understand and calm her younger sister, Amanda, who has Down syndrome.

Sheridan laughs at that memory now, but realizes in retrospect that the nickname suited her.

Growing up with a Down syndrome sibling prepared her for a career teaching special education, because her day never went as planned, she said.

'I love being around that population of people,' said Sheridan, a Michigan native. 'Special ed comes so naturally to me … It gets you ready for the unexpected.'

Now, Sheridan plans to use her teaching skills to help children with other special needs.

She recently left her job as a learning specialist in the Lake Oswego High School special education program to pursue a year as a humanitarian aid volunteer in Uganda, a war-torn country in East Africa.

She will leave for Africa in about a month to work with Medair, a Swiss organization that brings emergency relief to victims of war, political conflict and natural disaster. Medair has a multi-sectoral approach providing clean water, food and psychosocial support to displaced persons.

Sheridan, 26, completed a week of intense training in Geneva, Switzerland, in July. The sessions included simulations of disaster response, setting up refugee camps, security protocol, lectures and seminars.

'They put you in situations where there is a high level of stress and talk about what to do in those situations so you hopefully make good choices,' Sheridan said.

While many Americans volunteer in various capacities around the world, positions working in high-risk countries - such as Pakistan, Afghanistan or the Democratic Republic of Congo - are difficult to secure because they typically go to those with doctorate degrees, experience in international travel and refugee work.

Sheridan, who graduated from Central Michigan University, spent a semester in Ghana taking classes at the University of Ghana, teaching in villages and working in orphanages and among refugees from Liberia. Sheridan was particularly influenced by her friendship with a Liberian woman whose husband and children had been killed in civil war. The woman, who had a college degree, was sent to a refugee camp.

'My personal relationship with refugees opened my eyes to conflicts around the world,' Sheridan said.

She returned to the U.S. but continued to follow news about countries in crisis. After considering places to live, she settled in Portland, a city where she could teach special ed and be involved with the refugee community.

Outside of her job at LOHS, Sheridan worked with the Portland-based Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization primarily helping Liberian women. And last summer, she traveled to India and into the Himalayas to assist refugees from Tibet.

She soon realized that she wanted to do humanitarian aid long-term and began researching her options. Sheridan began taking her interest seriously once she attended a Genocide seminar at LOHS and listened to a former Medair worker speak about her experience. She was immediately interested.

'I felt it challenging to find an organization that had values I agreed with,' she said. 'Medair has accountability.'

After being accepted to the training course, Medair offered Sheridan a few positions to choose from. Originally, Sheridan had intentions to travel to Darfur, but because visas were not being issued for aid workers, she decided to go to Uganda instead.

For eight weeks at a time, Sheridan will work in the northeastern part of the country, where there are reports of abuses by both the rebel Lord's Resistance Army and the Ugandan army.

Recently, grassroots organizations have been attempting to raise awareness about the thousands of young boys who are kidnapped by the rebel army to work as soldiers. Many are required to kill their relatives and neighbors or watch their famiiles being murdered. The girls are kidnapped and forced into sexual slavery.

'I can hardly think about it,' Sheridan said. 'Especially the boys who are 10 years old and have already killed people. How do you process that?'

The documentary 'Invisible Children' illustrates the terrible lives of the children, known as 'night commuters,' who leave their villages and walk many miles each night to avoid abduction.

For those who escape the rebel army, refugee camps are often their only way to survive after the decimation of their villages and families. The Patongo Displacement Camp shelters 60,000 refugees under constant military guard, providing a semblance of normalcy where kids can attend school and try to rebuild their lives. Sheridan will work in the camps as a health and hygiene promoter.

'The goal would be making the situation better in Uganda so these people can go back to their homes,' Sheridan said.

Although Sheridan's work is volunteer-based, she must pay for her airfare to and from the country. Medair picks up expenses for food and insurance, and gives workers a hut to live in. Sheridan is also required to get vaccines and obtain a relief worker visa.

Although she adored her job working with students at LOHS, Sheridan said her next adventure fulfills a long-time dream.

'I can't believe I am doing this right now,' she said.

The school has been supportive of Sheridan's plan and set up a fund in her name. According to LOHS math teacher Casey Dunn, Sheridan 'has a commitment to the ideals that so many of us believe are important.'

Contributions to Sheridan's fund can be sent to: Lake Oswego High School, P. O. Box 310, Lake Oswego, OR, 97034. Please specify it's for the 'Kathleen Sheridan Uganda Fund.'