Former Forest Ridge director big heroine in Uganda

In 2002, John Nsambu, at the time the youngest Member of Parliament in Uganda, had a vision for how he could help lift his country out of the poverty and isolation that was reducing the quality of life of its citizens.

Some years before, Nsambu had spent a few months in Washington as part of a student exchange.

With few other contacts, he took a gamble on his distant friends here, and reached out to the teachers and schools of America.

With the developed world already swept up in the technological revolution of widespread internet access and mobile technology, Nsambu's idea was that exposing young Ugandans to computers, and computer training, would provide them with educational opportunities that were then far from their reach.

Of the more than 50 inquiries he sent out to educators in Washington, only one responded.

That teacher is now heralded as a great friend of the Ugandan people, and is credited with bringing positive change to not just the schools of Uganda but to its villages, its economy and society, and to the many Americans who have joined her in the Computers for Uganda program.

Her name is Janet Graeber, and in Uganda, she is a heroine.

Seven years later, and the program developed by Graeber, the former Director of Forest Ridge School of the Sacred Heart in Bellevue, has provided almost 800 computers to more than 50 schools across the country.

On a recent Saturday afternoon, the hall at the Forest Ridge school was filled with the colors of Ugandan art and the delicious smells of Ugandan food, as members of the community and the program's supporters came together to applaud the efforts of Graeber and her helpers, and raise money for this year's trip.

Six students from Forest Ridge and one from the Overlake School will accompany the latest shipment of donated computers, and will assist in setting up computer labs and installing software.

The Rotary Clubs of Sammamish and Mercer Island are two of the many groups and individuals that have contributed to the program, helping to pay the considerable cost of transporting the computers.

Since 2003, Graeber and students from Forest Ridge and other local schools have made six trips to Uganda, and will return to the country in June of this year.

According to Fredrik Winses, a Microsoft employee whose daughter, Katrina, was part of the first trip in 2003, one of the great strengths of the Computers for Uganda program is that rather than being just a one-off gift, it encourages the local schools and villages to invest in their own future.

“A computer lab donation from the Computers for Uganda program is so much more than a gift,” Winses said. “It represents a partnership. In order to qualify a school must provide facilities in terms of a secured room with cement floor, doors and windows that can be locked, a dedicated computer teacher and conditioned electrical power – in most cases this required a significant lift from the parents and overall school community.”

“As a rule, schools also need to have at least 50 percent female enrollment, an initiative insisted on by Dr. Graeber, and they must promise to make the computer lab available to the general community outside school hours.”

Microsoft is one of the Seattle area companies who have donated used computers and software to the program, along with Davis Write Tremaine, REI, FedEx/Kinkos, Quadrant Homes, Trimark Petroleum, Zones, and many more.

Forest Ridge student Julia Maynard is getting ready to make her second trip to Uganda, this time as team leader, after taking part in the 2008 visit.

“The goal of the project is to bring educational tools to the various Ugandan communities,” she said. “In a place where textbooks are scarce, (software) programs like Encarta open up a whole new world for the people.”

“Two years ago, the group set up a computer service center so that the Ugandans could take the lead in the upkeep of the computer labs.”

“This project is life-changing for both the people in Uganda and America, who work together to make a difference for Ugandan children.”

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Jake Lynch is editor of the Issaquah Reporter. He can be contacted at