Children's relief group finds joy in performance

by: SUBMITTED PHOTO - The Watoto Children's Choir is comprised of Watoto Children's Village residents from Uganda.Many of us can fondly recall traveling with our school choir at a young age on trips that enabled us to see a new city or, if we were lucky, a new state.

The Watoto Children’s Choir singers get to see entirely new continents, and will be swinging through Tualatin as part of their six-month tour of the United States.

The critically-acclaimed choir is comprised of children of all ages, largely from eastern Africa.

Their eclectic performances blend aspects of various traditions in African dance and storytelling, and there’s a fair amount of gospel, too. That’s because the performers share one significant trait: staggering loss.

According to United Nations statistics released in 2009, more than 14 million children have been orphaned by the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Each of the Watoto choir performers belongs to this group, and each now lives in Watoto Children’s Village in the Ugandan capital of Kampala, a community of single-family residences clustered near a school, health clinic and community SUBMITTED PHOTO - The Watoto Children's Village in Kampala, Uganda, aims to assemble families for children orphaned by the AIDS/HIV epidemic.

The community was established by Gary and Marilyn Skinner. After moving his family to Uganda as part of a mission in 1980, Gary Skinner said he observed abject suffering among women and children in a corner of the world plagued by conflict. Skinner pointed to a specific biblical verse, James 1:27, which interprets pure religion as the act of looking after the orphan and the widow. In the war-torn and AIDS-afflicted region, there were many of both, often stigmatized and alienated. Often, the children and widows of AIDS victims find themselves rejected within their own communities.

That phrase haunted him, he said, when he visited a 79-year-old widow, who was about to lose the last of her seven children to AIDS.

“God put in our hearts that we must not build an institutional orphanage, but we need to build homes,” Skinner explained. “We got property, and we developed a children’s village where there are eight children living in a home with a mom —” often, someone who had lost family due to the epidemic herself.

“And those kids belong to that family,” Gary said. “They’re going to grow up to be normal, healthy kids.”

The organization’s motto became “Rescue, raise, rebuild.”

The same year the village opened, the Skinners kicked off what would become a wildly successful means of bringing awareness to their project, and to the plight of so many of its participants. The Watoto Children’s Choir has since introduced 64 choir groups to church and school audiences worldwide, and is now accredited by the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability.

The purpose of their uplifting performances and global tours is three-fold: It allows them to see the world, of course. But Skinner and his wife, Marilyn, view the program as part of a larger “holistic care program” of sorts, and emphasize how travel and singing encourages the children to become more confident, and a little bolder.

“I think that God has a beautiful plan for every hurting person, to get them out of their hurt, into wholeness, where they have a sense of dignity and value and worth. I think we have to treat people holistically,” Skinner said.

During their six days in Oregon, the Watoto Children’s Choir will perform Saturday at 6:30 p.m. at Living Savior Lutheran Church, 8740 S.W. Sagert St.

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