School in Uganda established through help of Murrysville area Unitarian minister grows
Every Sunday morning, Rev. Renee Waun has to double-check her calendar to make sure she's headed in the right direction.
Some days it's down the Parkway to East Suburban Unitarian Universalist Church in Murrysville. Some days it's a little farther east to a congregation in Ligonier. Other days it's south, to congregations in Wheeling and Morgantown.
In a few weeks, however, Waun, 74, will be able to look at her calendar and see nothing but blank pages.
After nearly two decades in the Unitarian church, Waun will retire at the end of May, leaving behind a legacy of social justice advocacy and volunteer work, including helping to establish a school in the African country of Uganda.
Waun grew up in Michigan, and moved to the Pittsburgh area in 1967. She was originally ordained in the United Methodist Church and served at a Shadyside church for several years.
“But I was advocating for gay people and doing a lot of radical stuff, so the Unitarian church just seemed a better fit,” she said.
She resigned from her Methodist position, and as she was deciding what to do next, she received a call from the Rev. David Herndon at the First Unitarian Church of Pittsburgh, where she began working in 1999.
“They invented a position for me, and then they kept reinventing it so I could stay,” she said.
Around 2001, she received a call from congregants at East Suburban Universalist Unitarian Church.
“Their pastor had just left,” Waun said. “They came to hear me preach on a Sunday, hired me to be their pastor, and I've been there for 19 years now.”
Then the calls just kept coming, first from Wheeling, then Ligonier and Morgantown.
“Each congregation is different and has their own personality and things to remember, so it's just been a fascinating time,” she said.
A couple years after starting at ESUUC, Waun — who was already a big fan of world travel — decided to make her next trip count a little more.
“I wanted to do something meaningful, to give back, and to do it in a place I'd never been before,” she said, eventually settling on Uganda in east-central Africa.
“I went for three weeks in 2003 and volunteered as a teacher and an AIDS worker, because at that time there were 2 million AIDS orphans in Uganda. It was ground zero for AIDS work,” she said.
During the trip, she met a group of Ugandans who were looking to establish their own school. Waun consulted with the group, helped them put together a business plan, timeline and budget, and organize a board of directors.
In 2005, Waun traveled back to Uganda to see the progress on the New ABC Divine Foundation School.
“They'd borrowed some land, they'd gotten the villagers to contribute scrap lumber, bamboo, old rusty metal sheeting, whatever they could do to cobble together this four-classroom school on a muddy hillside,” she said. “I told them I would go home, create a website, show my friends what they'd done, and see if I could get them some help.”
ESUUC served as custodian of the funds for Waun's Africa Rules School Foundation, which turned out to be wildly successful.
“Over the years, we've raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for the school,” she said. “Now there's a new classroom block made of bricks and mortar, roof gutters that bring rainwater into storage tanks, and a school nurse who comes by twice a week and serves not just the students but the villagers.”
And thanks to an unexpected partnership, solar power has come to not just the New ABC Divine Foundation School, but several others in Uganda.
“About nine years ago, I got an email from a young man named Nathan Thomas, in Ohio,” Waun said. “He refurbished computers, and asked if the school in Uganda would need some.”
Thomas solicited donations from local Rotary clubs so he could pay to ship computers overseas, and after his freshman year of college, decided to make his own trip out and see the school.
Thomas said the trip inspired him to go beyond just computers.
“I decided to focus on the basic necessities and use the engineering skills I was learning,” he said. “I created a 501(c)3 in 2012, and I started noticing that there were a lot more young people interested in charity work.”
Thomas created the nonprofit All We Are , which over the past decade has outfitted 50 Ugandan schools with solar power, including the New ABC Divine Foundation School.
Seeing Thomas's progress, Waun felt confident she'd found the right person to author the next chapter of the book she'd started in 2001.
“His team and my team caught up with one another when we both traveled to Uganda two years ago,” Waun said. “I thought, ‘I'm going to need some sort of plan of succession here,' and Nathan said he would be happy to fill that role.”
Thomas — who is now president of his local Rotary Club in Raleigh, N.C. — leveraged his work with that organization and partnered with a sister club in Uganda to put together the solarizing project.
“We have an employee (in Uganda) who is trained as an electrician,” Waun said. “And I had Nathan, with a mechanical engineering degree, and they just totally clicked. So the Rotarians identify a school, Brian (the electrician) inspects it to see if it meets the criteria for solar, and then Nathan's group supplies the finances and the materials to solarize it.”
The transition is nearly complete: ESUUC parishioners who previously sponsored students through Waun's Africa Rules School Foundation now do so through Thomas's All We Are group, and Waun serves on its board of advisors.
She has come a long way since her first trip to see the school.
“On my way over, I'm thinking this is either the biggest mistake I've ever made, or it's going to be the beginning of something really great,” Waun said. “And it's turned out to just be wonderful.”
Patrick Varine is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-850-2862, firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @MurrysvilleStar.