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In the northern Ugandan district of Kitgum, nearly two decades of ongoing civil and tribal conflicts have devastated the region's population. Many people have been killed, abducted, or forced into fighting. Those left behind end up in refugee camps where they live in fear and have little promise for a better future. Children and teenagers are the most vulnerable, as access to quality healthcare and education is scarce.

Amidst this despair, however, hope is on the horizon for the village of Agoro, with a population of 16,500. It is coming not in the form of large foreign aid or intervention, but support from online volunteers to the Agoro Community Development Association (ACDA), a community-based organization established by the local government in 2001. The aim of this collaboration is to increase the association's capacity to empower the community's residents, especially youth, through education.

ACDA's engagement with online volunteers started in 2003 through its affiliation with RESPECT International, a Canadian NGO that links refugee communities with a network of online volunteers from the United Nations Volunteers (UNV) programme's Online Volunteering (OV) service*. RESPECT and online volunteers work together to increase awareness of refugee issues by connecting non-refugee and refugee students and by raising funds and materials to assist schools serving refugee populations.

Tom Fred Obonyo, ACDA's director, says the association's collaboration with RESPECT and online volunteers is having a tremendous impact on the community. One example is the recent establishment of a computer resource centre. Online volunteers wrote the project proposal, advertised the need for the centre by creating the association's website, found an organization to supply and ship the computers, and gave technical support during set-up. The centre today gives IT trainings to 800 students, including a number of school dropouts, and provides ACDA with the infrastructure for its operations.

In addition to the computer resource centre, online volunteers coordinated an ongoing pen pal exchange between students in the village with those in America and Canada. A third major initiative is the participation of 46 students from Kitgum in distance learning through RESPECT University - a new project pairing online volunteer tutors with refugee students.

Tom says the students' engagement with RESPECT University is an exciting one, as the students receive lessons in such courses as English, mathematics, statistics, business studies and music technology. Courses in environmental science, home economics and computer resource management are also planned.

As Internet access is limited in the village, the courses are carried out by mail. The students receive assignments from their tutor, which they complete and return for feedback. "The impact is already visible, as the students are eager to participate in this - they want to go ahead with their studies despite the surrounding conflict and poverty," he says. "There is even a waiting list of students wanting to take the [distance] courses."

Tom would like to see the courses carried out online, as the current time for a student to receive a course, send it back, and receive feedback, along with a new assignment, is one month. He hopes online volunteers will assist his efforts to connect the computer resource centre to the Internet.

Since September 2004, two online volunteers are assisting ACDA's new initiatives to open a vocational school and health clinic. Tom says the community supports both projects, but external assistance is needed. For instance, textbooks are required for the vocational school.

Online volunteer Mary Han, a South Korean currently studying in the United States, answered ACDA's request for assistance by collecting books from her college campus in Atlanta, Georgia. "I believe that education will bring some kind of hope to rebuild their lives," she says. "The most crucial problem I think facing Africa in general is lack of resources. I feel it's my responsibility to find the books and school supplies to help sustain their vocational training school. It is crucial to give them continual support."

In addition to the textbooks, Mary is now trying to find US-based NGOs to collaborate with ACDA for long-term support.

A second online volunteer is working with ACDA's director and a collective of regional NGOs to develop a project proposal and letter of support for a private hospital, which once set up can provide services to some 200,000 people in the district.

Through these activities, Tom says online volunteers are bringing a new sense of life and purpose to the people of Agoyo. "The initiatives focused on students and the young are revitalizing the entire community," he says. "If online volunteers continue supporting [the community], we will see a great change."