Ever since she was a little girl, Kari Hamilton '12 MSW dreamed of Africa.
It began when her family played host to two young African girls, members of a visiting children's choir that included many orphans. The idea of children without parents touched Hamilton's curiosity. The idea of Africa tugged at her imagination-and her heart.
"I knew one day I would go to Africa," Hamilton said. "I needed to do this."
With a degree in family services from the University of Northern Iowa, Hamilton began working as a treatment counselor at Tanager Place in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in 2005. She eventually joined several co-workers in pursuit of a Master of Social Work degree from St. Ambrose.
"Studying for my MSW increased my passion for working in the mental health field, especially with children" she said.
And yet, Africa called.
Hamilton found herself visiting websites about mission trips to serve orphans, especially in Africa. In 2010, she went for two weeks to Ethiopia and Uganda. Summer 2011 found her back in Uganda.
She learned about Exile International, a Tennessee-based organization working to restore the lives and empower war-affected children and former child soldiers in Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
"I loved Exile's mission and was very intrigued with its plan to establish Peace Clubs for children traumatized by war," Hamilton said.
After meeting Exile co-founder Bethany Haley for coffee, Hamilton found herself agreeing to implement the program. "I was terrified of the four-month commitment, but knew it was a really unique opportunity," she said. So in June 2012, a month after earning her SAU master's degree, Hamilton left again for Uganda.
The Peace Club
North Uganda is a land devastated by decades of armed conflict. Over the years, countless children were abducted by the Lords Resistance Army (LRA) to serve as soldiers. Others were born in captivity. Many were orphaned by war.
Peace Club is a response to the plight of these children. "It is an empowerment program using evidence-based treatment, heavily focused on forgiveness," said Hamilton.
Peace Club offers trauma counseling and teaches conflict resolution and peace-building skills. Art, writing, music and dance provide additional ways for the children to process their anguish.
While piloting the program, Hamilton met children who had experienced "the worst of the worst." She heard stories of children forced to kill their own mothers and of children who had suffered atrocities beyond mention.
But the children were so strong.
"It didn't make sense!" exclaimed Hamilton. "I asked myself, ‘How are these children even functioning?' They should be on endless lists of medication, rocking themselves in the corner."
The Peace Club provided them an education about what they had been through-and a means to express their trauma. Hamilton saw the children listening carefully, using and practicing everything they were given. "They were so willing to do whatever it took."
That is not to say that they did not suffer.
"Definitely, the children struggle daily with memories and many suffer from recurrent nightmares," said Hamilton. Some are severely ill due to the torture and trauma. But Hamilton found less of that than she had imagined possible. "I was so taken aback by their level of resiliency."
When it was time to leave, Hamilton felt heart-broken. But she believed the local leaders and social workers were, in the end, the experts, and had been well trained to continue the program.
"Peace Club was already making a difference," she said. "The children were dreaming of helping their country. The past did not predict the future. They hope-how they hope! How they believe!"
In the end, Hamilton said the children taught her more than she taught them. "There's such a deep level of confidence in God; that God is always good." And she was overwhelmed by their capacity for forgiveness. "Girls who were abducted sex slaves and had walked until their feet were literally bones, they forgave the people who had abducted them," she said softly. "They told me, ‘Why should we hold on to hate? All it does is hurt us in the long run.'"
For now, Hamilton is working as a family therapist in Cedar Rapids. She plans a "check-back" trip to Uganda in late spring.
And her future? It is Africa.
"That's where my heart is," she said. "It will be my life at some point."