In these extraordinary times of change and uncertainty, imagine being quarantined over 7,800 miles from home.
Fourteen children from Uganda, Africa, have been staying with a family in Indian Springs, Alabama, since early March. They are part of Sozo Children, a nonprofit Christian organization founded in Uganda by Birmingham native Suzanne Owens.
Initially working in the mortgage industry, Owens had a change of heart that would transform hundreds of lives.
“In 2003, I had a calling on my life through a sermon at a leadership conference and that message was, ‘Am I going to fish for perch or fish for men?’ This was from the passage in the Bible in Matthew 4:19,” said Owens. “Soon after that calling, I began working as a youth minister at a local church in Birmingham and worked there for seven years.”
During that time, Owens’ church encouraged college-age students to visit and help in an area of the world with need. “We felt strongly about being the hands and feet of Christ. … There were two recent college graduates, Jay and Allen, that asked if they could serve longer somewhere in the world,” Owens said.
At that same time, a Ugandan couple that had housed mission teams in Uganda was in the United States, staying with Owens while their daughter received medical care. The medical procedures were unsuccessful, and the daughter died, so the couple returned home. Soon after, they welcomed the student missionaries to Uganda.
When the missionaries reported back to Owens that there were children suffering from neglect and hunger, she worked with the Ugandan government and rented a new family-style home and established Sozo Children on May 13, 2010. A Greek word, “sozo” means to “save, keep safe or rescue from harm.” Sozo Children’s mission is to disciple children into the next generation of Christian leaders.
“In the beginning, the kids came from a poorly run home that the government shut down,” Owens said. “Today, we are governed by the Ministry of Gender and they assign children to Sozo.”
According to The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), 56% of all Ugandan children live in poverty. Some of the challenges include: 43% of children are unable to read or write, 77% of multidimensionally poor children are unable to go to a health facility or afford prescribed medicine when ill, and 48% of all children do not receive three meals a day due to a lack of money.
The need was apparent, and Sozo expanded, renting three additional family-style homes between 2011-2014 and purchasing 28 acres of land in a Ugandan village. Last year, Sozo Children completed the first phase of a building project and moved the children from the rented homes in multiple locations to eight family-style homes on Sozo’s land. Today, the nonprofit, with the help and love provided by a team of Uganda caregivers, delivers proper nutrition, healthcare, quality education and spiritual development and life skills to over 120 children.
To further expand the opportunities for the children, Owens began a Children’s Choir in 2016.
“At the church I served at in 2007, we hosted a choir from Africa,” Owens said. “We saw firsthand the good in the kids coming to the U.S. and spreading the love of Christ.
“After we started Sozo, we knew that we would love to do the same for our kiddos,” Owens continued.
During that inaugural four-month tour, the children gave 102 performances in 43 cities, across 10 states.
This year, on Sozo’s 10th anniversary, the Children’s Choir returned in early March to tour for several months throughout the U.S. However, the precautionary measures caused by COVID-19 have led to the cancellation of many of their performances and required them to stay in Alabama indefinitely.
“For now, all of the choir and several of us are staying in Indian Springs,” Owens said. “The kids are on a schedule with school and practice, but they also have time for playing outside, riding their bicycles, playing in the creek and watching movies. We spend the mornings and evenings in praise and worship and studying God’s Word.”
Fortunately, the children’s Ugandan Child Development Director, Aggie, is with the students in Indian Springs and assists them with Facetiming Sozo family members in Uganda. So, they are able to keep in touch and share the new experiences they are having in America.
“They love the bikes that were donated to them,” Owens said. “They also say school is fun sometimes. They love the food and trying new things.”
While the pandemic has allowed the children the opportunity to experience life in Alabama, like so many others, it has also prevented some of the revenue sources for the nonprofit. Along with the postponement of the choir tour and cancellation of other special events, the pandemic guidelines have forced the temporary closing of Sozo Trading Company, a thrift marketplace that Owens opened in 2015 to help provide sustainable income for the nonprofit.
“We are praying for drop-offs of clothing and household donations for Sozo Trading Company to continue even though our retail operation is closed for now,” Owens said. “And we are grateful for those who continue to give financially to ensure our mission continues.”
Owens welcomes support for the Sozo Choir and caretakers staying in Indian Springs with the donation of meals or supplies listed on Sozo Choir page on their website. To donate supplies, text Suzanne Owens at 205-401-8968 for drop-off directions. Monetary donations for Sozo Children and Sozo Choir can be made directly through the website as well.
“We are so grateful for the outpouring of love for Sozo Choir.” Owens said. “For the protection of our kiddos and friends, we ask that all supplies and food be left outside the front door … and we welcome your waves and virtual hugs, and hope to visit with everyone once it is safe.”
The Sozo Children website offers additional opportunities to support the nonprofit, through one-time giving, recurring monthly child sponsorships or purchasing supplies.
“Every donation helps to empower these children for future success, so that they can impact further positive change within their communities and in Ugandan society,” Owens said.