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Irene Gleeson: The missionary who mothered Uganda’s orphans

Gospel artist George Lubega and Irene Gleeson with children from the Irene Gleeson Foundation. Courtesy photo.

By Agencies

A charity walk has been announced in recognition of the achievements made by Australian aid worker Irene Gleeson who dedicated more than 20 years of her life to helping an estimated 6000 orphans in Uganda, most of whom had been abducted by Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army.

The 68-year-old died in 2013 after a 14-month battle with cancer. In 1992, Irene Gleeson left her comfortable life on the northern beaches of Sydney, Australia, her four children and six grand children to follow the call of God to northern Uganda.

There in the small, isolated community on the Sudan border, Ms Gleeson began teaching traumatised children to sing. A trained teacher, Ms Gleeson eventually added reading and writing to her repertoire.

To thousands of Ugandan children she was known simply as “Mama Irene”.

During her time in the country, Ms Gleeson established three schools which feed, educate and provide medicine for thousands of Ugandan children. She also helped to build an aid hospice, a vocational college, a community church and a radio station that broadcasts to more than 1 million people in the region.

Her Christian-based Irene Gleeson Foundation now supports 8000 children through 450 working staff supported by funds from Australian and American donors.

An orphan herself, Ms Gleeson never knew her father. At the age of 15, Gleeson was confronted with her mother’s death and as the eldest child she was left to raise her seven younger siblings

A year later she got married only to divorce 20 years later.

“It left me disillusioned and seeking a purpose,” she said of the divorce in an interview with UTS Tower magazine in 2010.

Not long after, she found herself moved to act on the plight of Ugandan children after sponsoring a child in Ethiopia.

Ms Gleeson told Ugandan newspaper, New Vision, in late 2012 that she was motivated by a strong desire to address the imbalances between Australian and Ugandan children.

“My children and grandchildren had whatever they wanted, but this was not the case with African (Ugandan) children. Being a born-again Christian, I chose to redress the imbalance,” Ms Gleeson told New Vision.

Irene Gleeson Foundation director John-Paul Kiffasi says the story of Ms Gleeson’s life is inspirational.

“She gave away her children’s inheritance, sold her home in Sydney and came into a war zone to set up a caravan in the bush. She first gathered 50 kids under a mango tree and fed them, clothed them and educated them”, he told Fairfax Media.

“Twenty years later we now have had more than 20,000 gone through these doors. The first 50 are now managers at our four schools, one became a doctor and four are nurses.”

But Ms Gleeson’s achievements did not come without personal cost.

Ms Gleeson was the target of several rebel attacks and suffered bouts of malaria and depression.

But keeping her going through it all was the results of her work.

“My kids go home and sleep in mud huts on a dirt floor on a plastic bag. Insects come up through the dirt, bite them, and then go back down underground during the day. I can’t afford to build them houses, but at least they can come here, to a full day-care school, between 7.30 and 4.30; they get their water, they get their food, they get their medicine and they get an education,” Ms Gleeson told UTS magazine, Tower in 2010.

“What drives me is pulling everybody up to their full potential,”  she said.

This year’s proceeds from the charity walk scheduled for 22 July at Booma grounds in Kitgum district will go to the construction of the Irene Gleeson Community Library and Youth Training Resource Centre.

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