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60 Feet, Caring for Children in Prison

We don’t imagine six year olds accused of petty theft. However, that is precisely what Dan Owens, a deacon in the Diocese of the South, and the founder of the charity Sixty Feet, found on his first trip to Uganda in 2010.

Some of the children were orphaned when their parents were struck down by AIDS, others stole food to feed themselves when there was nothing at home. On some occasions, the children had been framed by their own parents, who didn’t want another mouth to feed.

They were picked up by the police, and brought to detention centers where they waited.

Whitewashed Streets

“We knew that when the Pope came to visit Uganda it was going to be bad,” said Dan. He’s quick to clarify that it wasn’t the Pope’s fault; simply the byproduct of the visit of any foreign dignitary. Things get a fresh coat of paint, the streets get cleaned, and in the process delinquent kids get picked up in the dragnet.

As anticipated, a few days before Pope Francis arrived, a truckload of children arrived at the detention facility. Currently, the Ugandan social and legal systems cannot handle the volume, so many children spend months or years waiting for their case to be heard.

Pilot. Developer. Dad.

Dan didn’t expect his first trip to Uganda to become a multi-year effort. A former missionary pilot turned software developer, he was a suburban dad and father living in Atlanta, Georgia when he first heard about the child prisons. A documentary filmmaker from his church, The Village Church in Vinings, Georgia told him about a piece of investigative journalism that he was going to be working on. Intrigued, Dan asked to join. The film project ended up getting cancelled a few weeks before their flight was to leave, but Dan’s small group Bible study was so moved by the project that they took up a collection to cover the trip’s expenses.

The initial goal was modest: to help provide clean water for the children by drilling a well. In Uganda, the water table is relatively high and therefore clean water is within sixty feet of the surface.

In the midst of that first trip, Dan began to catch a vision for the next set of needs to be met, and God began providing the resources to make it happen. It felt as if the resources were not far away, accessible with a little work, and the name 60 Feet became a metaphor for all that was to unfold.

From Pepperdine to Kampala

Working with those who have a heart for ministry, Sixty Feet has been empowering local Ugandans to meet one need at a time. After the initial visit, the next step was medical care and advocacy. They raised the funds to hire a nurse and a social worker, and gradually built up a variety of interlocking ministries that are now run by fifty workers and a range of short-term volunteers. The team consists of Ugandan social workers, nurses, pastors, and administrators who work alongside Pepperdine law students and short-term interns.

The Pepperdine students figured out how to navigate the legal system and effectively advocate for the children. Large chunks of the United States and Ugandan legal code have common roots in the British system of law, and so the learning curve was not steep. They are finding ways to expedite cases, and training Ugandan legal counselors in the process.

While the legal counselors do their job, the other members of of the team work out the rest of the equation. Nurses attend to the child’s health, and the social workers locate and identify relatives who might be willing to provide a future home. With churches in nearly every part of the country, the Anglican Church of Uganda has been a key partner. Sixty Feet works with local priests to make sure that when the children re-enter their community there is another set of eyes watching out for them and caring for them.

Sharing a Model

With operations now running smoothly in Uganda, other African countries have asked Sixty Feet for assistance. Dan and his wife, Shelly, are exploring these possibilities and making themselves available to mentor others who are forging overseas partnerships. “We’ve learned a lot over the last six years. If possible we’d like to help others avoid some of the dead ends that we encountered, so that they can be more effective in carrying out the vision God has given to them.”

From Atlanta to Uganda, God is raising up the next generation of Christians who are sharing their resources for His glory. On the face of things, the needs can be overwhelming, but there is life-giving water just below the surface.

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-By The Rev. Cn. Andrew Gross


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