Blankets, sleeping bags and pillows lined the second and third levels of the concrete parking garage on Eighth and Walnut streets late Saturday night. Meanwhile, the garage echoed with the sounds of children’s laughter and the hum of conversation.
The rain outside didn’t dampen the spirits of about 170 Columbia residents of all ages who came together — as did residents in at least 130 other cities nationwide — in solidarity with the 30,000 Ugandan children who nightly travel several miles to seek shelter from dangerous rebels.
Participants of the event, known as the Global Night Commute, which ended Sunday morning, began their journey at the Shelter Insurance parking lot the night before. Organizers estimated that 300 people walked two miles along Broadway to Courthouse Square downtown, where many planned to sleep underneath the stars. Because of the rain, the Columbia commuters who spent the night ended up sleeping in the parking garage instead.
The walk and sleepover were eye-opening experiences for some commuters.
“You have to keep reminding yourself the children of Uganda walk whether it’s raining, cold or hot,” MU grad student Jenny Heineken said.
Many of Columbia’s commuters first learned of the Lord’s Resistance Army, a rebel group that terrorizes children and forces them to become soldiers or sex slaves, from the documentary “Invisible Children.” It shows the lives Uganda children are forced to lead as they struggle to survive.
Saturday’s event was meant to send a message from residents from Columbia and across the nation to the U.S. government to help stop the 20-year war and genocide in Uganda.
Dressed in rain jackets, parkas and even trash bags, the commuters remained upbeat throughout the walk, exchanging jokes and stories. Several commuters took their shoes and socks off, and one father pulled his son along in a little red wagon. The bobbing multi-colored train of umbrellas received honks and shouts of encouragement from passing cars and home owners.
Inside the parking garage, commuters wrote letters to President Bush and Missouri state senators, urging them to help stop the war in Uganda. Participants brainstormed possible future events and fundraisers and created an art project for a scrapbook to commemorate the event.
In her letter to the president, MU sophomore Sarah Lake described the situation the Ugandan children face each night and what the Global Night Commute represents to these children and to her.
“They walk out of fear, while I walk out of hope,” Lake wrote, asking the president to be a representative for Americans who no longer want to see the tragedy continue. Her letter will join over 50,000 others from across the nation being sent to Washington D.C.
Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity members taught a group of children from Granny’s House, an after school program for kids that live in public housing, a step dance in a part of the parking garage. Elsewhere, a group huddled around a young man playing guitar and singing.
By 2 a.m., most of the 177 commuters had tucked themselves into layers of blankets, huddled together for warmth and comfort to last them through the night. At 6 a.m., they awoke, rubbed the sleep from their eyes and ventured into the gray and moist morning to the Courthouse Square for a group picture. Heartfelt smiles and waves of joy filled the camera lens.
Participants said the event gave them a deeper appreciation for the challenges Ugandan children face. Many hope their participation will bring about change.
“I’m really filled with hope that we’re going to make a difference with this,” said family physician Joseph Lemaster, who spent the night with his wife and daughter.
Event organizers said they were surprised and moved by the turnout and hope everybody gained a greater sense of awareness and motivation to help Uganda’s invisible children.
“It was profound to see what happens when people care,” event organizer Steve Boul said. “Hopefully, it’ll create a memory for people to stir them to do something in the future.”