A Newport Beach native has co-founded a nonprofit that helps Ugandan youths achieve their potential.
By Julia Clerk
The plight of abandoned and abused boys in Uganda has come closer to home thanks to the efforts of a Newport Beach resident who’s determined to help them better their lives.
Annabelle Brigandi, 21, is co-founder of the Streets to Success Foundation, a program that gets boys and young men off the streets in Kisenyi, a huge slum in Kampala, the capital of Uganda. The organization works to gain the boys’ trust and get them into a safe house and school. It also helps them through issues like mental health, anger problems and addiction, and into job training and eventually paid employment.
Brigandi grew up locally, attending Newport Harbor High School and the Halstrom Academy (now called Futures Academy). She currently lives here part time and spends several months of the year in Uganda. Her father, Chris, owns and operates Arbor Real Estate while her mother, Christy, has worked as a stay-at-home parent, raising Annabelle and her four siblings while pursuing a passion for oil painting.
Venturing to East Africa was originally just another stop to quell Brigandi’s “travel bug”—an enduring quest to see more, experience more and meet more people. “My original intention was to go to Uganda and then go home and, hopefully, continue to travel the world,” she recalls.
Known as the “Pearl of Africa,” Uganda is an incredibly beautiful country. But, like many African nations, slums have grown up around the big cities. Kisenyi is a place where unemployment and poverty fuel violence and extremism.
During her travels, Brigandi met Aoife Buckley, a disability nurse from Ireland who came to Uganda initially to volunteer with children who have special needs, but who also fell head over heels for the country and its people. Buckley began working with boys in the Kisenyi slums in early 2018, offering a basic level of medical care and health education, listening to their stories and developing a true relationship with them.
“We began going independently into Kisenyi and doing activities with the boys, such as basketball classes,” Buckley explains. “I would continue to do medical [treatments], would help with bathing and food, and then, eventually, started our outreach in June of 2018. Then, with the situation in Kisenyi getting worse and worse, we knew we had to do something—so that’s when we opened the [safe] house.”
Streets to Success helps boys and young men ages 7 to 21. But Brigandi says that while working in the slums, they noticed a particular need among the older boys, age 14 and up, who face very limited options in terms of help from aid organizations. “These boys are some of the sweetest, funniest, toughest group of boys you’ll ever meet,” she adds.
Saving a Life
The annual cost in U.S. dollars to support a school-aged boy ranges from about $770 to $1,020 per year. In many cases, a boy’s life literally depends on sponsorships, which are available through Streets to Success. Support not only goes into the cost of schooling but all aspects of a young man’s life—housing, food, school supplies, clothing, health care and more.
The foundation is currently housing 24 boys: Twelve are in primary school, two in secondary school, one in a special needs center and six in vocational classes, while three boys recently received sponsorship and will soon begin their education.
“We allow for all the boys to decide which schooling they want to pursue,” Brigandi explains. “… We do require all boys attending vocational school—depending on their previous education—to attend adult education, which will teach them to read and write.”
“Our boys are all incredible,” Buckley adds. “It’s impossible to not meet them and fall in love with them.”
Buckley says that many of the boys were abused at home before running away. Many of them have lived on the streets for upwards of 15 years—suffering physical, emotional and financial troubles. All of them experienced trauma and a large majority have mental health concerns.
Learning to Cope
“We are strong believers that in order to have a successful present and future, they need stable mental health,” Buckley says. “With the boys’ consent, we have around five to six of them in one-on-one therapy to help overcome their trauma and learn coping mechanisms.
“… We have seen amazing responses to the therapy. But as you can imagine, there are some weeks that are harder than others. These boys are such hard workers, and the therapists we work with are incredible. So, even with the harder sessions, we see great growth and great hope for the future.”
An issue facing the young men that neither of the women anticipated is the “street kid” stigma.
“The general idea of the boys is that they are drug addicts or thieves or ‘bad kids’—and photos are posted of them online, just ingraining the idea of these beliefs of the boys,” Buckley says. “We are all working to end the stigma—both within the community, school, online and within talks with the boys, reminding them of their worth and dignity. They are all so much more than the circumstance in which they live[d].”
Vicent Walusimbi, 23, works as an “uncle” to the boys at the home. He’s experienced many hardships in his own life, allowing him to relate on a personal level to their circumstances.
Walusimbi ran away from home at age 10 because of abuse. He lived on the streets for seven years, but was chosen by another charitable organization (LOT 2545) to be trained as a mechanic. He joined Streets to Success in fall 2018.
“My dream was to be a social worker, but it didn’t happen. So, when I heard about Streets to Success Foundation, I offered my time as a volunteer,” Walusimbi explains. “After some time … working with the boys and getting to know them and the other staff, we formed a good relationship, and I was asked to stay and become an ‘uncle.’ I enjoy counseling the boys on similar issues I had during my own sponsorship.”
In Their Own Words
It’s difficult not to be compelled to help after hearing these boys’ stories. Titus, 17, says he ended up on the street due to abuse by his parents, who told him they didn’t want him. He says that having a sponsorship means that he now has a new “family.” “I decided to go back to school,” Titus says, “because I’m still young, and I have a chance to get more knowledge and skills so that I can live a successful future.”
Arthur, also 17, lived on the street for two years before finding Streets to Success. His aspiration is to become a lawyer. He met the Streets to Success “aunties” at an outreach event and voiced his desire to leave the slums.
Both Fad, 15, and Emmanuel, 17, also left home due to abuse, neglect and not being able to go to school. Both say they want to give back by helping other children forced to survive on the streets. “But first, I need to go to school,” Fad says.
Brigandi firmly believes that everyone—no matter their gender, age, race, societal status or other factors—deserves dignity, respect and access to basic necessities like food, clean water, medical care and education. She adds that helping these boys is a two-way street, saying the inspiration she gets from them (and everyone involved in Streets to Success Foundation) is immeasurable.
“These boys bring so much joy and unconditional love to our lives,” Brigandi says. “We are so honored that, with the aid of a sponsor, we can be the liaison for the boys and their education. These boys are such hard workers. They are smart, creative, well-rounded people, and they all deserve the access to an education tailored to them and their needs.”
And sponsorship of a boy, she says, may add deep new meaning to the sponsor’s life, too.
“Sponsoring a boy can be a life-changing event for not only the boy, but for the sponsor as well,” she says. “It’s an incredibly beneficial opportunity for both the sponsor and sponsee (sic) to create this friendship and sponsorship bond.”
How to Help
If you’re interested in assisting the Streets to Success Foundation, consider sponsoring a child, making a donation, buying merchandise such as T-shirts, tote bags or stickers available through the organization’s Instagram page, or sharing information about the foundation on social media. Learn more at streets-to-success.org.