By Torri Singer
HOLMDEL – What began on a whim 10 years ago, developed into what would be a life-changing journey for Sylvia Allen and the hundreds of lives she has touched along the way.
It was 2003 when Allen took a humanitarian trip to Uganda, Africa that would change her life and the lives of many others forever. The head of the Mbiriizi Primary School, Geofrey Kawuma, asked Allen to be the school’s “grandmother.”
Because of the AIDS crisis, few women actually lived to become grandmothers so Allen knew the request was a great honor. After accepting the title and returning home to New Jersey, an already busy Allen couldn’t shake the feeling that something more needed to be done back in Uganda.
A longtime believer in the “trust your gut theory” – or as Allen puts it, TYG “your stomach will tell you if something’s good before your brain can do it” – she knew that her feeling about the children she met wasn’t going away. Though she was already the founder of an award-winning public relations agency, Allen Consulting Incorporated, and a widely recognized published author, Allen decided to make room for a new adventure.
Upon her return to the U.S., she decided she would form a nonprofit. In August 2003, Sylvia’s Children was founded as a New Jersey charity, and by April 2004 it earned 501 (c)(3) status.
In its first year as a nonprofit, Sylvia’s Children raised $4,000. Some would be satisfied with this number, but Allen, an ambitious self-made businesswoman who comes from a long line of entrepreneurs with an even longer line of drive, knew she was capable of bigger and better returns. In 10 years, $850,000 has been raised.
The money and hard work translates into real change. Recently, a 6,000-square-foot medical clinic was built on the school grounds, equipped with a full-time nurse to treat children.
The addition of newly built classrooms has helped ensure that more kids can be taught a range of courses, and not only the traditional ones. Reading, writing and arithmetic are taught, but students also attend anti-drug classes and classes that discuss abstinence and AIDS. But perhaps most exciting to Allen, is the creativity that has been borne out of the financial support.
Two years ago, Allen arrived on the school grounds to learn about the science club that the children developed on their own.
A self-proclaimed education “fanatic,” and former New York University professor, she believes that education is the best way to make real change.
“With education, you can do anything, you can be anything,” Allen said.
An emphasis is placed on developing skills “within the framework of the culture” at the school, which is why children can take sewing classes and learn how to grow crops, useful tools that will help them become active members of society.
Many students have gone on to their own achievements and Allen is proud that. “One former student is a teacher, two are studying to be nurses, one is an information technologist,” Allen said, reciting those accomplishments with the type of ease that only someone with true investment – and pride – can.
Allen, who is constantly searching for the next improvement that can be made, is looking ahead to what’s next for Sylvia’s Children.
“Next, let’s start adult education. We can bring widows in and teach them to sow … they can either be paid or barter. Their time can be bartered so their children can be in the school,” Allen said.
She describes her role in the organization as “the management.” But as founder, president and honorary grandma, she exceeds the typical expectations of an administrative position. The school children, many of whom Allen knows personally, line the road when she visits, greeting her with song and dance. It’s a tradition that Allen says is “indescribable” for her and the groups of volunteers she brings. In June, she made her 19th trip. Her next one will be in November for the children’s Christmas celebration, a time for Allen and anyone who offers help to spend hours making dozens of gift bags to pass out.
“I can’t change the whole world, but maybe I can change the world of a hundred or a thousand.”
Three trips are taken annually, one in November, a medical trip in the spring and a June trip.
Allen describes returning from the trip for many as a new “awareness” of their world and the one from which they have just returned. Donors often express a new appreciation and understanding of the blessings in their lives.
Donor involvement can range from a single one-time donation to those who wish to sponsor a child for $1 day or those who wish to accompany Allen on her regular trips to the school. No administration charges are deducted from donations, which means that 100 percent of the proceeds go directly toward the kids and making progress, she said.
The 76-year-old has no plans of slowing down in the near future, though she is grateful that her own children, Michele and Tony, are personally invested in the nonprofit.
“I’m not dying yet, because I don’t have time!” Allen said. “I’m not going to lose my energy and vitality. (Sylvia’s Children) is where my heart is.”
Additional information is available online at www.sylviaschildren.org.