A working vacation

Saint John’s seniors build chicken coops for Ugandan school.

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March 16, 2012

By Adam Tucker '14

Saint John's University seniors Cole Schiffler and John Burns know what comes before both the chicken and the egg - the coop. 

Schiffler and Burns spent three and a half weeks during December in Kyetume, Uganda, building chicken coops for a small school, Hope Academy, to allow the school to pay teachers and staff. 

"We built two coops and bought 600 chickens, and projected revenue will pay for all 18 teachers for the Hope Academy," Schiffler said. "The grand idea for fundraising for these schools was building these chicken coops, and John and I were like, 'We don't know anything about chicken farming but we'll try it out.' " 

The project started nearly a year previous to the trip, when Global Business Leadership Associate Professor Paul Marsnik pitched the idea to Burns and Schiffler after they completed his entrepreneurship class. 

"I saw in these guys an entrepreneurial spirit," Marsnik said in an interview with The Record, the newspaper of the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John's University, in early February. "These guys aren't typical students." 

The two would start a typical day of their winter vacation by working to construct the large coops by hand in the buttery warmth of the Ugandan sun - hammering and measuring wooden planks until nearly noon when it became too warm to work. 

"The pace of the Ugandan culture was shocking in a good way," Schiffler said. "They work hard, but their lifestyle was really relaxed and less stressful, which was really nice to experience." 

Later in the day after a meal of tea and rice, the two Minnesota natives would spend time in the shade chatting with locals - who were eager to talk with them and learn about cultures outside of the small African village. 

"I've never seen people more thirsty for knowledge," Schiffler said. "Whether it was reading a dictionary or talking with us, they would do anything to learn - and it was beautiful." 

For Schiffler and Burns, the experience was not just the three weeks of work, but also a future project that keeps on giving. 

"We want to keep this project going every year as a sort of business entrepreneurship project for motivated students," Schiffler said. "We're looking for four students to take over where we left off and continue projects in Uganda."

Hope Academy was founded by Saint John's alumnus Br. John Mary Lugemwa, OSB, and the two seniors hope that incoming students will consider the opportunities that a volunteering experience abroad can offer while attending CSB and SJU. 

Past CSB and SJU student efforts for Hope Academy include student fundraisers through the selling of "Hope Beads" and the campus filmmaking group Extending the Link, which filmed its 2010 documentary Essubi: Growing Up With Hope on location. 

"I mean, shoot for the stars and go do something," Burns said. "You have the ability, with the help of your professors, to really make something of your time here - and I think everyone should try for that." 

Long after the hammer bruises and nail cuts have healed, Schiffler and Burns remember only one emotion to describe their long, hot weeks in Africa, as well as their continued efforts for Uganda: happiness. 

Schiffler and Burns recall the weeks of hard labor as one of the best vacations they have ever spent, and are looking for students who want to share the experience of Ugandan life - and the feeling of protecting a small school from financial demise. 

They also believe that feeling is within the grasp of everyone in the CSB/SJU community. 

"You have the resources here and the people who want to help," Schiffler said. The two seniors are currently searching the CSB/SJU student body to continue the project at Hope Academy and hope their story will inspire others to consider volunteering abroad. 

The biggest impact those weeks in the hot Ugandan sun had on Schiffler and Burns? 

"I just really noticed how little they lived on, yet how happy they were," Burns said. "They ate one meal a day and were all smiles - it was very powerful to see. I want other people to see that."