When Jackson resident Jean Semler retired from her pharmaceutical management job, she and her retired guidance counselor husband, David Thelen, took a trip to Uganda. There, they met Father Lawrence Kizito Kimbowa, a Ugandan parish priest, whose life was transformed by a kind benefactor from the U.S. who sponsored his education. The encounter caused the couple to devote their lives to a grassroots organization they founded with Father Lawrence called ChangeALife Uganda (CALU).  CALU’s mission is to change the lives of children and their families in Uganda through education, health care, and income-generating programs. Through this charity, they have created many opportunities for American citizens, such as sponsoring a child or contributing to a myriad of programs that have the power to change people’s lives. Some local residents even join them on their annual trip to Uganda and work directly on projects which have improved a school and provided health care and local entrepreneurial development.

At the invitation of Red Bank Regional (RBR) International Baccalaureate (IB) teacher Katie Blackwell, Mrs. Semler visited RBR’s IB students to encourage their involvement, as well. RBR IB students perform self-directed community service projects as a requirement of obtaining their IB diploma.

While the vast population in Uganda lives in extreme poverty, Jean Semler told the students, “Our belief is that when children are given a proper education and a safe environment, they become a catalyst for change and have the ability to improve the quality of their lives, their families’ lives, and their communities.” Mrs. Semler told the students that the organization’s most pressing need is completing a project to provide clean water to the St. Lawrence School and village in Migyera, Uganda. She explained the many ways that the students could get involved and make a difference.

RBR rising junior Brook Willemstyn is interested in joining the student advisory board as CALU partners with 20 schools and universities in the area. RBR students Dannay-Kam Baxter and Amani George-Luis saw opportunities to raise money for the organization through selling Ugandan-made jewelry in the CashForCrafts program. The organization features specific programs in which individuals, church groups, schools, and other organizations can easily become involved and see exactly where their aid is going. These include: Tuition for Tots-To-Teens, which sponsors a child and their education; BucksForBeds, which provides a dormitory for students who live miles from the school; QuartersForWater, which funds the clean water project under development at the St. Lawrence School, which the organization helps support; MoneyForMedicine, which finances treatment for TB malaria and HIV; and FundsForFarming, which helps farmers increase their crop production, among other programs.

The students and anyone else interested in meeting Father Lawrence and learning more about the organization have the opportunity to attend CALU’s Second Annual African Picnic that will be held at Knightsbridge Farm in Atlantic Highlands on September 21 from 4:00 to 8:00 p.m. Those interested in learning more about ChangeALife Uganda and its programs should follow the group on Facebook or visit their website at

Photo caption — Pictured with the beads created by Ugandan women for sale in their CashForCrafts programs are: Maggie Brown, Kyle Morris, Brooke Willemstyn, Jean Semler, Dannay-Jan Baxter, and Amani George-Luis.