Aspen High’s Uganda trip sparks concern
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
ASPEN ” The head of the Aspen School District said recently that if she could cancel a planned trip by Aspen high schoolers to the troubled African nation of Uganda, she would.
But because it is a summertime trip, arranged by a teacher but not affiliated with any school club or class, Superintendent Diana Sirko admitted that she has no authority to stop the trip.
“We can’t tell a staff member, or students, that they can’t go if it’s not during school time,” she said.
Sirko emphasized that she never gave her “blessing” for the trip, as was reported erroneously in a recent Aspen Times article. She said the school district’s attorney drafted a letter to be signed by parents of the students traveling, absolving the district of liability.
The trip’s sponsor, social studies teacher Lance Finkbeiner, said he has taken precautions to ensure the safety of the eight students and four adults who are going on the trip, and emphasized that it is “an opportunity of a lifetime for these kids … to change the lives of [children at an AIDS orphanage], and to change themselves. I’m not going to put them in a dangerous situation.”
At least one parent, contacted by The Aspen Times, requested to not be named in an article but agreed with Finkbeiner. She said she had sent another of her children abroad on a trip with a teacher in the past, and is confident of their safety.
Sirko, when asked if she would call the trip off if she could, said, “Yes, because I think it’s dangerous. I think it would be a wonderful educational trip, but … it’s not a place that they endorse for any kind of travel.”
Sirko was referring to the U.S. State Department website, which cautions Americans against traveling in northern Uganda because of violence.
The northern part of the nation, located in the east-central part of the continent at the northern edge of Lake Victoria, was the subject of a popular film shown recently in Aspen, called “War/Dance,” about a school filled with war orphans who compete in a national music and dance competition. It also has been the scene of cases where children have been abducted and forced to serve either as soldiers or wives and concubines.
But Finkbeiner said concerns about his trip are out of proportion, pointing out, “we’re not going to northern Uganda.”
The group will fly into Kampala, the capital city, and travel from the airport to the orphanage in a private vehicle guarded by a private security force, he said. While there, where they will stay in dormitories on the grounds.
The group, members of which are spending $2,000 apiece to make the trip, will spend two weeks laying bricks for the foundation of a new library for the Ssejinja Children’s Foundation, launched by David Ssejinja, and working in a nearby medical clinic.
Finkbeiner said the foundation runs two orphanages, two schools and the clinic. It also works to help women widowed as a consequence of the rampant AIDS epidemic on the continent.
As for the threat of violence, Finkbeiner said there has been none “in that part of the country for several years. It’s a very stable part of the country.”
In general, he said, “I can find you websites that say the United States is the most dangerous country in the world,” judging simply by crime rates and murder statistics.
“It’s all perceptions.” he said, “We’re so adamant about being so comfortable.”
Plus, he said, “I’m in contact with people in Uganda every day” to keep track of the situation. He said his group will join another group of students from Salt Lake City. He said one team of Salt Lake volunteers just returned from the region, and “they had an amazing experience, and no hints of any problems.”
“Of course they’re concerned,” Finkbeiner said of parents, “but so are parents of kids going to France or Spain.”
He continued, “I’m proud of these kids. They’re willing to step out of their comfort zone and do something in the world, to make a difference. And for those that have ventured out of their comfort zone, I think they realize that that is where real growth happens.”
The Aspen City Council directed staff to move forward with the Burlingame early childhood education center, but decided it needs more information on the affordable housing units that are part of the schematic design at a work session Monday.