A Gift from a Gift: WMS 7th-grader raises $3,300 to build, furnish house for poor family in Uganda

When their daughter was born, Lee and Kate Bassler knew she was special and needed a name that conveyed that quality. 

To honor Mrs. Bassler's Ugandan heritage, the Cartersville couple chose the name Kiconco – "a gift" in the Ugandan language — as her moniker.

"Before she was born, I asked my husband — my husband's from [the United States] — what we should name her, and he said, 'Pick a name from Uganda you would want to be named if you had to choose a name,'" Mrs. Bassler said. "I chose the name 'Kiconco.' So when I said the name, he said, 'That's the name.' I said, 'But no one will ever be able to read it or say it.'"

She tried persuade him to choose another word that meant the same thing, but he wouldn't go for it. 

Years later, Kiconco — known as "Chi Chi" to her friends — would live out the meaning of her name by raising $3,300 to build a house and buy furniture and clothing for a family in her mother's native country. 

Mrs. Bassler's brother, Jerald Tibyeitu, a tour guide at Queen Elizabeth National Park in Uganda, sent her some photos last May that showed the impoverished family — widowed grandmother Nuliati Kavuma and her two orphaned granddaughters, Maliam Nakide, 10, and Joelia Nabuloia, 6 — living in the village of Kasese in a grass hut, growing their food in a vegetable garden, cooking over an open fire under a tree and carrying their water from a well a mile away.  

"My mom showed me some pictures that my uncle had sent her of the family because he was saying they're his friends because him and his workers would go play soccer, and the kids would watch them," Kiconco, 12, said. "I saw their situation, and I was like, I wish I could do something for them because it was really bad, and I felt bad for them."

But rather than just wishing she could help, the Woodland Middle seventh-grader sprang into action and decided last June to start a fundraising campaign to build a house for the family. Her uncle determined it would take $3,000 for the materials, and the builder, a family member, wouldn't charge anything for labor. 

"The builder is from my family," Mrs. Bassler said. "He had built many houses for us, so when he found out that she was doing a project, he even offered to build free because he was impressed by her project. He said if she come up with the money, he'll go out and do the house.

"So he went and talked to the widow and tell her that he was coming to build her a house and make sure that she had land in her name and all that stuff. So that's how he went and started doing things."

With the plans in place, Kiconco began raising money — pet-sitting, shucking corn, washing a porch, painting fingernails, baby-sitting, packing and moving boxes, anything people would pay her to do.

"I think probably the hardest one was we cleaned out poison ivy in the backyard of a lady's house," she said, noting she got some on her legs.

"She had to mow a big backyard full of poison ivy, vines growing on the trees," Mrs. Bassler said. "Her and her friend came, and they worked hard. It was hard work."

Kiconco also baked and sold cookies and banana bread.

“She made banana bread, and she’ll put price on it, $20," Mrs. Bassler said. "That’s the most expensive banana bread I’ve ever bought. Everything was business to her. She didn’t just lay in bed and say, ‘It’s gonna happen.’ She worked really, really hard.”

Mrs. Bassler created a Facebook page, a flyer and a Go Fund Me account that asked for donations for the project, and money started coming in from her teachers, people in the community and in other states and church groups. One quilter volunteered to make a quilt with donations of fabric in African colors that sold for $300.

"Money came from everywhere — friends, teachers, everyone was just excited about this project — and then she worked, too," Mrs. Bassler said, noting their family didn't go anywhere last summer because Kiconco "knew what she had to do" to meet her goal. "She really did work hard all summer."

Near the end of summer, the decision was made to go ahead and start working on the house before the Ugandan rainy season set in, even though Kiconco didn't have all the money yet.

“October is the rainy season in Uganda so when the rainy season was about to start, we had like maybe half of the money, and we decided we’re going to start anyway because when it rains, it rains," Mrs. Bassler said.

Some people seemed doubtful that the money would be sent to Africa and that the house would be built.

“I tell people, if we didn’t know that it would happen, we would never do it because I knew my family was part of it," she said. "They were happy to know that they were helping someone in need. So when we started the house, that’s when people got really, really excited, calling her for jobs, calling her to wash decks and stuff like that so that’s when money start coming in."

By the time the rain started, Kiconco had met her $3,000 goal, and the roof was on the house.

Mrs. Bassler said it rained so hard in October that she told the builders to let the family move into the home, even though it wasn’t finished, because it had a roof.

"The family lived in a little grass hut and cooked their food under a tree," she said. “So when it rained, it would rain inside. It didn’t have cement floors. It was just a mud puddle. They didn’t have beds, no furniture, nothing. They slept on rugs on the floor. So if it rained three or four days, they had no way of keeping the fire under the tree, and they could not have fire in the little leaky house. It was not safe so they didn’t eat or sleep. I told [the builders], I said, ‘They do not need to suffer much longer because the house has a roof. Have them move in.’”

By mid-November, the rain had subsided, and the finishing touches were put on the brick-and-stucco house with a cement floor and shutters to keep the rain out. A few feet away was a separate cook house that would allow the grandmother to cook even when it’s raining as well as a clothesline for drying their clothes.  

Kiconco's uncle told her what the grandmother said to the builder when the project was done.   

"She fell on her knees, and she started crying, and she was saying she didn't even know that God knew she was there," Kiconco said.

When the tween saw a photo of the finished house, she said, "I did that?"

Once the house was built, Kiconco wanted to buy furniture and mattresses for the family, but the money was gone. She, however, was willing to use the funds in her savings account to purchase what they needed.

"I almost cried because she said, ‘You know, you can take all my money from the bank and make sure they have beds to sleep on,'" Mrs. Bassler said. "And that Saturday morning, we checked the mail. We got $200 that very day.”

She said she immediately went to the bank and sent the money to her brother through Mobile Money.

“In an hour, they had the money so they went to the store, and they bought beds and blankets and plastic chairs because the house had nothing in it," she said. "So when the truck pulled in the driveway in front of the house with a load of blankets and mattresses and things to sleep on, [the family] could not believe it.”

Mrs. Bassler said they received another $100 donation, which they sent to the grandmother so she could buy some used clothes from thrift store there.

"They have new clothes on, and they look happy," she said. "They’re not wearing rags like how we started. So it was just wonderful.”

While the house is just three rooms with no utilities, there's not another dwelling like it in the village or within a 50-mile radius, according to Mrs. Bassler.

"They are grateful, but they are very poor," she said. "They don't have a phone. They live in this little village where there's no network. No one has running water or electricity or anything. It's just like a small, isolated village where everyone is just poor. It's miserable. 

"So for someone to knock at the door in Uganda and say, 'I'm going to build you a house,' that's unusual because even the government doesn't ever, ever take care of anyone. There is no free service. Nothing is free in Uganda so she could not believe it."

Kiconco, who was born in the east African country but hasn't been back since, said she didn't get discouraged at any point during the project, but her mother said she thinks her daughter was a little concerned at first.

“At the beginning, I think she worried a little bit because $3,000 to a child is a lot," Mrs. Bassler said. "I remember when she said, ‘That’s a lot of money.’ The fear in her voice, it could make me cry. And then she said something like, ‘I know if all fails, my dad will never let me down.’ So she had that kind of a feeling that if the plan doesn’t work out, if she doesn’t raise enough money, her dad will support her. So that was great to have that trust in her father.”

And how does Kiconco, who said she inherited her caring heart from her parents, feel now that her quest has successfully ended?

“I feel kind of relieved that I don’t have to worry about, like, ‘Oh, I need to get this money,’ and I feel good that I could actually do it,” she said.

Mrs. Bassler, who also has a son, Kevin, a freshman at Woodland High, said she doesn't think she was "bred" to do what her daughter did. 

"Even though I'm from Uganda, I don't think I could have just pulled that plan together and say, 'I'm going to challenge myself into building a house for a widow in Uganda,'" she said. "I'm not that brave. It was amazing. It was really exciting."

Seeing her daughter's compassion and concern for others has confirmed to Mrs. Bassler that she and her husband gave her the appropriate name.

"Honestly, she's been a gift," she said. "She's so gifted in so many ways. She's always the best student in the school, always straight A's. She's in seventh grade, always above 95 in all her grades since kindergarten. She's always helping people; she's always doing good things. So I'm very, very, very proud of her."

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