As the sun peeks through the trees of the rural Ugandan landscape, Jill Holland is moved to tears. Standing in the middle of one of the My People Christian Junior School’s thrice-daily worship sessions, the artist and Baton Rouge native is overcome by the joy of the people surrounding her.
“All is well because He lives,” they sing, hands in the air and smiles spread across their faces.
The sight is as emotional as it is astounding to Holland. Many of these children are orphans, rescued from children’s prisons or off the streets of the surrounding towns by the school and orphanage’s founder and leader, Pastor Grace Kabuye, along with his wife Rita. However, despite the horrors of their pasts and the struggles that they continue to face, the children are bursting with happiness.
“These kids have been rescued and they know that,” explains Holland, who made the trip to Uganda in 2018 following the establishment of her nonprofit Atlas & Arrow, which offers assistance to Kabuye and his operation to rescue, house and educate local children. “It’s hard to reconcile the life we have when you see firsthand the lives these people lead. They live in a completely different mind space.”
A new mindset was exactly what Holland was seeking out when she had a chance meeting with Kabuye at a Bethel Church conference in California in 2016. After 15 years focusing on herself and her art career, Holland was on a mission to shift her gaze outward. Months of prayer had yet to yield any answers until she sat next to Kabuye in the large conference room. Listening intently to the details of his work and the need for it, Holland knew this was her sign.
“In Uganda, education equals safety,” she explains. “As long as a child is in school, they are considered valuable members of society, with rights and protection. The second they aren’t, it’s a complete shift.”
This shift, Kabuye explained to Holland, means that lost, runaway or neglected children found on the streets can be sold into prostitution, married off or sent to “rehab” centers, which are more like prisons. When Holland met Kabuye, he had already rescued 87 children, and was funding the school and orphanage almost completely through the donations he received while ministering in Uganda.
“We stayed in touch, and in March of 2017 he was going to be in Texas, so I invited him over,” she recalls. At her home in Fredericksburg, Holland gathered her friends to hear Kabuye’s story, with the goal of raising awareness and possibly funds for his cause. The night resulted in donations of nearly $30,000.
“That’s when things really got rolling,” says Holland. “I thought, ‘Wow, I can really do this.’”
Dedicated to pouring both time and effort into the cause, Holland founded her nonprofit Atlas & Arrow with the goal of providing Kabuye and his team with the provisions necessary to both sustain and expand the mission to house, educate and enrich the children of the small African nation.
“Our school is one of the only free schools in Uganda,” Holland says. “When I met Pastor Grace, he had one dorm and one classroom. Since we have been involved, we have been able to build two more dorms and four more classrooms.”
Employing university-certified teachers and feeding each of the 420 students daily, Holland and Kabuye also have plans of eventually making the campus self-sustaining, with a farming program to generate both food and funds. In addition, the pair have dreams of creating similar campuses in each of Uganda’s five regions.
“I have a 9-year-old girl and an 11-year-old boy,” says Holland. “When I look into the eyes of the kids in Uganda, I see mine. These kids live in need every day, and I want people to see that and be moved.”
Now back in the United States juggling her career, family and nonprofit work, Holland says the memory of the children’s joyful singing is one that has stuck with her long after her suitcases were unpacked, and one that she eagerly shows others thanks to the work of a videographer she brought along on her trip.
“I went there thinking I was going to minister to them, but they were the ones that ministered to me,” she says. “They showed me that I have so much left to learn.”