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With work nearly done on an orphanage in central Uganda, it’s time to thank the people who pitched in to make it a reality and invite others into its future.

That’s the idea behind a gathering on Tuesday by AIDSpirit in Billings, to talk about the successes of Tender Mercies Ministries and outline upcoming projects.

“There are so many people who have participated monetarily or with their prayers and their support,” said Kathy Brayko, an AIDSpirit board member. “We’re so appreciative, and we want to thank them and show them what their generosity has achieved.”

The hope is also that others who have never heard about the African outreach will come and learn about it, Brayko said.

She gathered with Tom Jacques, chairman of the board, and board member Terry Fettig to discuss the international aspect of the faith-based ministry.

The Tender Mercies orphanage, built on the edge of Kayunga Town, is home to 15 boys and three girls, but there is room for 20 of each in the 3,000-square-foot building. It has indoor plumbing, a dining hall, a library, a small infirmary, a kitchen, bathrooms and living quarters for the caretaker and his wife, with room for another.

“The old building was less than 400 square feet,” Fettig said. “You could put it into the boy’s dorm of the new building.

The orphanage employs Ugandan natives as the director, a social worker, a secretary and a nurse. Most of the children, who range in age from 7 to 19, alternate living at the orphanage for three months and going to school for three months, where they live on campus.

All of the children have been affected by AIDS, losing one or both parents to the disease, or having a parent or guardian that couldn’t care for them. Others have been abandoned, Jacques said.

“One boy in particular who was brought to us was found in a latrine at 1 day old,” he said. “A lady that saved him raised him for five years, but she was getting old and no longer had room for him so she brought him to us a couple years ago.”

Supporters, most from Billings, pay the costs for those students to go to school, plus nearly 40 others who aren’t orphans. Donors also pay to keep the Tender Mercies orphanage going.

AIDSpirit raised more than $100,000 for the building, and that’s in addition to the dollars needed to buy the land, slightly less than an acre. Fettig, the general contractor on the project, said once enough money had been collected, he traveled to Uganda at the end of June 2012 to oversee construction.

“The amazing thing was nobody in that area had ever seen a building go up that fast,” he said.

Jacques and Brayko both visited the orphanage for two weeks in early 2013 to help set up the new building, when the young residents moved in. The volunteers did everything from building book shelves and setting up the computer room and the library, hanging curtains and setting up the new beds.

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“It was the first time they had their own beds,” Jacques said. “They used to have three kids to a mat on the floor.”

Brayko remembered some of the boys showing her their new bathroom.

“I think it was the first time they saw themselves in a mirror,” she said.

The children had never before lived in a building with indoor plumbing, Fettig added.

There is still some work to be done. The next step is to add a solar system to the well, so the orphanage can have water year round. Right now the building relies on Kayunga District for water to fill the storage tank, and the tank is at the end of the line.

That means in the dry season, water usually doesn’t make it as far as the orphanage, Jacques said.

“So we have to put solar on the well so it pumps and fills that storage tank, which feeds the plumbing in the building,” he said.

The orphanage could also use a van, so Charles, the director, can take the children to medical appointments and school, Brayko said. The small car he drives makes that difficult.

Jacques, his wife, Jean, and a small number of other people will return to the orphanage in April for a little more than two weeks to work on a couple of projects. One is to initiate a connection with an existing program to help the older students gain vocational skills. The group also plans to place the solar panels on the well and drill another well in a nearby community.

In the midst of all the activity, the board hasn’t had the chance to tell about the success of the project in Uganda and the possibilities for the future, so they will do that on Tuesday.

They want to also describe the successes they’ve seen. Fettig spoke about Dumba, the very first student that supporters help put in school.

At first, the boy could hardly speak English. And his thought for his future was he would be a truck driver, like his father.

Dumba, now 18, will take his national exams next year.

“And he’s talking about computer science or engineering, when before he didn’t think he had a future,” Fettig said.

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