PHOENIX — Half a world away, the heartrending plight of orphaned and impoverished children in Uganda has moved an American bishop and hundreds of faithful to action.

Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted of the Diocese of Phoenix spoke to a packed ballroom about E3 Africa, an organization co-founded by Fr. Robert Aliunzi, AJ, to educate, enrich and empower suffering children from his Ugandan homeland.

Americans have taken up the cause by sponsoring students, saving them from a life of dire poverty and danger. For $70 a month, students receive an education as well as room and board at schools, including the secondary school being built by E3 Africa.

“I was orphaned by age 6 when both my parents died,” Fr. Aliunzi told the crowd. “With no means to support my family of 10 siblings, my young life was filled with hunger, with loneliness, with abuses, with near-death experiences and little hope. Therefore, I know firsthand what being needy and deprived are in every sense of that word.”

In 2005, after coming to the United States and being named pastor of St. James Parish in Phoenix, Fr. Aliunzi, alongside his late parishioner, Rosalie Weller, founded E3 Africa with the objective of educating the needy children of Uganda. Today, the organization is listed in the Official Catholic Directory, verifying its IRS-tax-exempt status of U.S. Catholic institutions under the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. E3 Africa’s counterpart organization in Uganda is recognized as a Non-Governmental Organization.

In his remarks at the organization’s first-ever gala last month, Bishop Olmsted spoke of having met two graduates of the program.

“I saw firsthand how E3 Africa changed the lives of young people,” Bishop Olmsted said. “They struck me as both bright and successful college students despite the almost unbelievable challenges of their early years.”

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Harriet Atim was one of the students. She had been kidnapped as a very young girl by rebels who destroyed her village.

“She witnessed firsthand atrocities and brutality that are too shocking for me to mention tonight,” Bishop Olmsted said. “By the grace of God. she was able to escape and return to her family and now she’s a graduate, fully employed, confident enough to travel halfway around the world and have lunch with the bishop in Arizona.”

In a video shown during the gala, Atim said that she still has nightmares about her ordeal, though they have decreased in number. She’s grateful for the education she received through E3 Africa.

“I can read my Bible. I can speak English. I can do a lot of things other kids who have not been given this opportunity cannot do,” Atim said. “There are so many kids that never came back or were never heard from again. We don’t know if they died.”

Sr. Betty Benjamine, a native of South Sudan, serves on the board of directors for E3 Africa and spoke at the event, explaining why girls have far less opportunities for education in Africa.

“In Africa, life is different from here in America, especially for girls. The family structure is different,” Sr. Betty said. “Girls become a source of wealth. They are given out in marriage with a bride price and so for that, girls don’t have the chance to get educated.”

Given in marriage at age 16, often to men who are 40 or 50 and who can afford to pay a high price, girls forgo education, she said.

“Many of them along the way become victims of defilement and victims of rape,” Sr. Betty said. “And no one can say anything — people have been arrested for that crime. The presence of E3 Africa has brought a huge change to the youth.”

Richard Opi is one of those students who benefitted from the education he received through the organization. Born without arms, tribal leaders told his parents they should kill him because he would be useless to the tribe. With the help of E3 Africa, Opi went on to obtain a degree in industrial arts in 2015.

Using his feet, Opi created a portrait of Bishop Olmsted. “I saw it and I could hardly keep from weeping,” Bishop Olmsted said of the image. “When I saw the smile on his face, I was struck by the fact of what this education makes possible for someone that many people thought wouldn’t have any future. And he not only has a bright future, but he’s already bringing joy to people far beyond his home country.”

Michael Scaramella, executive director of E3 Africa, said the organization has sponsored more than 100 children who have already graduated. In all, about 350 children have been helped.

BethAnn Bader of St. Andrew the Apostle Parish in Chandler is a former school principal and sponsors two students in Uganda through E3 Africa.

“I know how important education is. These kids, they hunger for it,” Bader said. “They are so eager to learn.”

The organization began building St. Thomas Aquinas College, a secondary school, in 2016. Eventually, the school will house, feed and educate 800 students. The recent gala in Phoenix raised some $55,000 toward that goal.

“That will help feed our students and keep them healthy,” Scaramella said. “It was a blessing for all of us at E3 Africa, seeing how generous our community can be during these difficult times.”