COLUMBIA — When Lori Acton was 13, she watched a television program about the civil war in Sudan that would change her life.
Other than a Japanese exchange student her family hosted through a local 4-H program, Acton had very little international exposure.
Her perspective changed after she saw a one-hour news special about a war 8,000 miles away that ultimately killed 2 million people and displaced 4 million more.
"It just broke my heart," said Acton, who grew up in Columbia and graduated from Rock Bridge High School. "It struck me in such a way that I wanted to be over there. I felt really strongly then that this would be part of my future."
That initial reaction would stay with her throughout her childhood and eventually shape her career.
Now 32, Acton, is the international development director of Fount of Mercy, a budding nonprofit based in Jinja, Uganda. She has worked to develop the organization since 2006 and permanently moved to Uganda during the summer of 2009.
Through Fount of Mercy, Acton helps provide education and vocational opportunities to orphans and their caregivers through community outreach programs.
"There's much to be done here," Acton said. "It's a place where people are able to come invest and be a part of a community."
Working to give back
According to the organization's website, 2.43 million orphans live in Uganda and half the population is 18 or younger.
In Jinja, many of the orphans are cared for by older widowed women, and it is not uncommon for one woman to house 10 to 15 children.
As the international development director, Acton does much of the administrative work to keep the organization running. When she's not in planning meetings and drafting budgets, she works with the women and children in the programs offered in the community.
She said she has helped women learn skills in business, baking, sewing and farming.
Even teaching someone how to turn on a computer can be a rewarding experience for Acton. This fall, she worked with a Jinja woman named Harriet on computer basics.
"I asked her what she learned that day and she told me, 'Lori, I learned how to open a computer,'" Acton said. "It was so sweet and so beautiful. It just meant the world to her. It's a small thing that I could do for her, but it made her so happy."
She also encouraged a group of women to start their own village bank after a two-month business course.
"It's really rewarding to see people embrace the things that they are so capable of doing," she said. "They've taken the things they've learned and run with it."
Vanessa Crowley, director of the community health initiative, agreed.
"When I see someone that I've taught grasp the information and then use it to make a difference, it thrills me to no end," Crowley said. "That's why I stay."
Learning about the issues early on
Acton attended the University of Central Missouri and studied social work. During her last semester, she worked as a case manager for refugee families at the Bosco Nationalities Center in Kansas City.
"They came from places all over the world," she said. "Getting to experience their lives and help restart their lives in Kansas City was a really special experience. I loved it, and it helped build a desire to move overseas."
She went to graduate school in San Francisco, where she earned a master's degree in arts and theological studies, as well as a master's degree in arts and intercultural studies.
In February 2006, she moved to New York City with $400 in her bank account to help start Fount of Mercy. She worked with fellow students from her studies in San Francisco to develop the plan, which originally started as a graduate studies project.
"We now reminisce about going to Barnes & Noble and buying 'Nonprofits for Dummies' and trying to build this up from the ground," Acton said. "It leaves me in awe thinking about how far we've come. It's been a really great journey."
In 2006, they made their first site visit to Uganda to assess the need of the communities. They spent three months looking at the cultural climate to assure they would be able to effectively address the issues of a large orphan population.
"We didn't want to be closed off to the reality of the situation," Acton said. "We wanted to be a part of where the need was."
Making a change one class at a time
When Fount of Mercy began in 2006, Acton said the staff met with at least seven organizations to bring classes to the people of Jinja. They have now expanded to nearly 30 partner organizations.
"We want to bring together peer groups to go through the trainings so they can continue to support each other," she said. "When we feel pretty confident with what we're doing here, it'd be great to move to another location."
Back in her hometown, she is working with Pastor Luke Stockeland of Open Door Baptist Church to bring awareness of Fount of Mercy's mission to the children of Columbia.
"We're hoping for our kids and our church to have a better awareness about what's going on in Uganda, what it's like for kids there and have a more interactive experience with them," Stockeland said.
Acton and Stockeland are collaborating to bring a series of Skype presentations about her work in Uganda to church youth groups in early December.
"If this takes off and creates excitement with the kids, which I hope it will, we would like to make this a regular series," Stockeland said.
Even with Fount of Mercy's expansion, Acton manages to return home to the United States every summer for about a month. Returning to Uganda after every visit is a homecoming in its own way, she said.
"I couldn't imagine doing anything differently," she said. "This is something I've been dreaming of for a long time. I'm pretty set here."
Supervising editor is Jeanne Abbott.