As a teenager, Catherine Koch would burst into tears when TV commercials came on showing images of emaciated African children.
The advertisements were seeking donations for aid organizations, but they struck Koch far deeper than her pockets. They echoed in her heart, and by the time she completed Grade 12 at Little Flower Academy in 1975, she knew without a doubt what she wanted to be when she grew up.
“The first thing I wanted to do (after graduation) was volunteer in developing countries,” she said.
Unfortunately, volunteers were required to have post-secondary degrees at the time. Koch’s father was ill and her family didn’t have the funds to send her to university, so she entered the work force.
Koch found herself happy and successful in various retail and customer service jobs. She eventually rose to management-level positions. “I didn’t know it,” she said, but “what I think I was doing then was honing my skills to be able to run a charitable organization today.”
She was in her early 40s when both of her parents died, 10 months apart, in the year 2000.
“Within five years of the passing of my parents, I started to realize through dreams and even visions that I was being called again, reminded, to answer the calls of children who were suffering, as if I could hear them crying.”
Koch’s dream could wait no longer. She told her brothers she was moving to Africa and began reading about orphaned and vulnerable children and where in the world she could serve them. In 2006, the UN predicted that disease, war, and famine would increase the number of orphans in sub-Saharan Africa to 50 million by 2010.
“I thought: I know where I’m going. I’m going to learn, I’m going to respect, and I’m going to see how, in my little way, I can make a contribution to the lives of these children.”
She met Juliet Tembe, a PhD student at the University of British Columbia during an event called Africa Awareness Week. Tembe shed light on the plight of children affected by HIV/AIDS, especially in Uganda, and Koch found her direction.
In 2007, she sold her house, pocketed the money, and flew to Uganda. For the next nine months, Koch lived among orphans and poor families, helped provide mosquito nets and bedding, paid tuition and other expenses for a couple of university students, and supported other initiatives by local NGOs.
She was deeply moved by orphaned children who were raising their younger siblings, by poor girls married by age 15 because their families needed the dowry payment, by parents who had to bury their children, by grandparents who had to raise their grandchildren, and by communities living without drinking water, electricity, or access to education.
By 2011, she incorporated her own non-profit, Love is the Answer.
“In a word, the best way to describe us is ‘love,’” Koch told a small crowd of supporters in Vancouver this spring. “I just want them to know how special they are.”
Koch, who lives in Uganda most of the year, has raised more than $1 million through her charity. She has used the funds provide emergency food, medicine, and supplies, to help students pay for school or boarding fees, to set up income-generating programs, and even to build three primary schools and a dormitory. Love is the Answer will serve any orphan it comes across, regardless of faith.
Uganda is small, about a quarter of the area of B.C., but has more people than all of Canada. Koch said due to HIV/AIDS, illness, poverty, famine, and other factors, about half of the population is under the age of 16.
She estimates she’s served thousands of children, though she’s lost track of the number. “We don’t count. We’re not coming to count.”
Three Ugandan boys have a special place in her heart. They were some of the first children Koch met, and she has watched them grow up and helped them get into post-secondary programs. Now, one has a certificate in motor vehicle mechanics and a driving permit, another is studying social work, and a third is on his way to becoming a doctor.
For more information visit loveistheanswer.ca.
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