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Thu October 3, 2013
Son’s Tragic Death Inspires Oklahoma Father’s International Activism
In February 2002, Reggie Whitten lost his 25-year-old son Brandon in a motorcycle accident after his son became addicted to prescription medication. For months, Whitten felt lost, and said he had no reason to live.
He joined friends on a trip to Africa, in a part of Northern Uganda then-dominated by warlord Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army he built with kidnapped children.
“The little boys…he would brainwash them, and the little girls became sex slaves,” Whitten says. “It made me realize the tragedy that happened to me and my family was not as bad as what happened to these children. It actually gave me a reason to live, to try and help these innocent children.”
Whitten founded the Oklahoma City charity Pros for Africa, with former University of Oklahoma football players Roy Williams, Mark Clayton, Adrian Peterson, and Tommie Harris. The group has formed partnerships with OU’s law and medical schools to send doctors and legal professionals to work on health and justice issues in Uganda and across the continent.
On one of the first Pros for Africa trips, Oklahoma City documentary filmmaker Derek Watson interviewed Sister Rosemary Nyirumbe, and several girls from Saint Monica’s Vocational School in Gulu, Uganda.
“We all remember Hitler and Stalin and Joseph Kony, but it bothers me that we don’t remember the heroes that stand up to these people,” Whitten says. “It’s just not right that Sister Rosemary, who is the principal person standing up for these girls, is not remembered.”
Narrated by Forest Whitaker, the documentary Sewing Hope was an official selection of the 2013 Napa Valley Film Festival. A companion book will be released in November.
On how his first trip to Uganda affected him
I came back home, thinking I need to do something, so a couple of months later I met Sister Rosemary on a trip to Washington D.C. and kind of fell in love with her. We had come from very different backgrounds. I'm not Catholic, I was born and raised, here, in Oklahoma, but she and I are very close, and I never thought I'd end up having my best friend be a little Catholic nun from Africa. But she is one of my best friends and she's become a hero to me. So we started supporting her school and, ultimately, we just felt like we needed a mechanism in place to help her fundraise.
On the day a building in Northern Uganda was named after his son Brandon
There were quite a few tears flowing that day, but the one who was hurt the most was Sister Rosemary. She was the one crying the most, she appeared to be the one suffering the most, but she never met my son. And I remember thinking, why is Rosemary hurting so bad? And I kind of figured it out, she has this unique talent to drain the suffering of others away and take it on herself, and I noticed that she's doing that to these children. When she's around these children, they're not hurting as bad, and I've never seen phenomena like that before, and I don't have the power to get her to get nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, but she should, and she should win it. Taking nothing away from the incredible work of Mother Teresa, who I'm a fan of, but nobody was trying to kill Mother Teresa like Rosemary, and I really think that would be a game changer in Uganda and it would be the right thing to do.
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SUZETTE GRILLOT, HOST: Reggie Whitten, welcome to World Views.
REGGIE WHITTEN: Glad to be here.
GRILLOT: You have founded this organization called Pros for Africa. Tell us about this organization. What does it do and how did it come about?
WHITTEN: Well, it's sort of hard to answer that in a short question, but I'll give you the short version. A lot of people do think it’s about football players, because four of my co-founders are pretty good football players. I had a young lawyer that worked for me named Jay Mitchell, and he was a walk-on basketball player at OU and he roomed with Mark Clayton and Roy Williams. So when we talked about helping Sister Rosemary in Uganda, Jay introduced me to Roy and they're extraordinary human beings. And, ultimately they introduced me to another fellow named Bill Horn, who is a sports marketing guy, a former pro baseball player, and Bill did the same thing everybody else does, he fell in love with Sister Rosemary and her work. So Bill introduced me to Adrian Peterson and Tommie Harris. And so those four players and Bill and I, we formed the organization called Pros for Africa, and it never occurred to us at first that anybody would just think it was just professional football players, it's really professionals for Africa. We have a very strong connection to the OU Law School, so we have a pipeline of law students and law professors that go to Uganda, all volunteers, and they work on justice issues. There are a number of justice issues in Uganda and Africa as a whole, especially relative to the rights of women and children. We have a very strong connection to the OU Medical School. So the OU med students, they actually go over there and put on medical clinics, started a couple of years ago, and this is their idea. They raised some money and every year they send a kid from Uganda to the Ugandan Medical School, which is very cool, because we don't have enough doctors here in Oklahoma, but they sure don't have enough doctors and nurses and dentists in Uganda. Most of these kids have never seen a doctor or a dentist in their life. We want professionals of all kinds to get involved. We had a friend of mine, who, his children met Sister Rosemary. He's got a six year old daughter. So on her own, she came up with the idea, and instead of getting birthday presents for her on her birthday, she asked all her friends to bring birthday presents for Sister Rosemary's girls. So she collected a ton of toys that we shipped over there, so we had a six year old pro.
GRILLOT: So pros of all kinds and all ages, not just professional football players, but others. So you mentioned Sister Rosemary several times. We've had her as a guest on our show, and I definitely want to talk about her specific work, but before we get to that, tell us why Uganda? Why did you decide to go specifically to Uganda? What was your connection with Uganda that interested you in bringing all of these professionals to do work in Uganda of this sort?
WHITTEN: Sure, in 2002 I had a twenty-five year old son that played college football, and he got addicted to prescription pain pills, and ended up dying in a vehicular accident. So about nine months after he died, two buddies of mine who had been working in Africa, in Uganda, dragged me over there. I had no interest in going to Africa at all. I almost didn't go. I was in a very bad place. And so we went to northern Uganda, and in 2002 that was a very bad place to be. And we went up to Gulu, which is twenty miles from the south Sudan border, and Joseph Kony and the Lord's Resistance Army were still very active, but I had never heard of them, I didn't have a clue who they were, and I didn't know who Sister Rosemary was. I didn't meet Sister Rosemary on that trip because she was traveling, but, basically, I saw what was going on over there, and it was sort of a wakeup call to me. It made me realize the tragedy that happened to me and my family was not as bad as what happened to these children, and it was very helpful to me. It actually gave me a reason to live, to try and help these innocent children, and it changed the way I looked at the whole world. And so I came back home, thinking I need to do something, so a couple of months later I met Sister Rosemary on a trip to Washington D.C. and kind of fell in love with her. We had come from very different backgrounds. I'm not Catholic, I was born and raised, here, in Oklahoma, but she and I are very close, and I never thought I'd end up having my best friend be a little Catholic nun from Africa. But she is one of my best friends and she's become a hero to me. So we started supporting her school and, ultimately, we just felt like we needed a mechanism in place to help her fundraise. So we started Pros for Africa and we broadened out from there quite a bit.
GRILLOT: So, specifically then, the work that Sister Rosemary is doing that touched you when you said you see these children and you use the conditions in northern Uganda, post-conflict, you know, horrific civil war that was fought there. What is it, specifically, about those children and their experience in the work that she's doing that spoke to you and made you start up a whole organization and network with all of these amazing people to go to Uganda of all of places?
WHITTEN: Well, I'm a little bit of a history buff, but like I said, I knew nothing about Uganda, so I've studied the situation, and this Joseph Kony, the things he's done are horrific. It's really hard for us to believe something like that could happen, but he was building an army with kidnapped children, and it's been estimated twenty to thirty thousand kidnapped. The little boys he would force to join his army and he would brainwash them, and the little girls became sex slaves, he called them ‘wives’, and it's unbelievable that something like that could happen, but it did, and the eyes of the world were not on that. We're watching what's happening today in Syria, it's very visible, but in northern Uganda, there was very little visibility, very little media, and Sister Rosemary was right in the middle of this. Interestingly, she didn't have to be there, she chose to be there, and there was nobody else really standing up for these girls, and while everybody else was running, you know, they called these children 'night commuters' or 'invisible children,' that's when they would kidnap them from their homes. The 'invisible children' name, I don't like that because they're not invisible. You can see them, and anybody that doesn't believe that needs to go over there and see them, they are very visible. So I just felt like something had to be done about it, and Sister Rosemary had her fifteen minutes of fame. In 2007, she was discovered, ironically by a rabbi, who nominated her for the CNN Heroes’ Award, and as soon as the world saw her, they promptly forgot about her. And it bothered me, as a student of history, we all remember Hitler and Stalin and Joseph Kony, but it bothers me that we don't remember the heroes that stand up to these people, and so, three or four years ago, we begin talking, it's just not right that Sister Rosemary, who is the principal person standing up for these girls, is not remembered. So on our first Pros for Africa trip, I took a young man named Derek Watson, who used to work for OETA and he's a filmmaker, and he's a genius, and I told Derek, I said, we should interview some of these little girls and Sister Rosemary, and we should tell this story. So we gradually over the years interviewed a number of these children, now young ladies. These were babies having babies. And after about a four year journey, we had now finished that film, so we're gonna put this documentary film out. It's called Sewing Hope: The Life Story of Sister Rosemary Nyirumbe, and along the way we also wrote a book, the same title, we'll roll both those out this fall, and we're hopeful that Sister Rosemary's story will be known by everybody, because that's the only way you're gonna keep history from repeating itself, is by bringing things like this to the attention of the world.
GRILLOT: Well your commitment, clearly in telling the story is remarkable, and the fact is we don't know enough about these stories and, unfortunately, northern Uganda is one of many stories we could be telling along these lines, but I think , Reggie, the thing that's particularly touching is how you ended up in this situation. And from your particular experience, and your own family tragedy and how something like this going on in another part of the world gave you a new chance, a new life, a new focus that is incredibly personal, obviously, but also very touching and instructive to the rest of us, that that kind of perspective can be gained in such a terrible thing. Is that really how you would kind of see it? That your eyes were just then opened after having experienced such an obviously painful and difficult thing.
WHITTEN: Well my eyes were open. To tell you the truth, I only have a vague recollection of what my life was like before eleven years ago. I really don't know who I was, I don't remember anymore. I'm a different person. But I like what I'm doing now; I have a reason to live now. You know, I had four other kids, and I loved them, but it's hard to live after you've lost a child. But what I went through was not as bad was what these kids went through. That much I can tell you. And I noticed a very unique phenomenon. Sister Rosemary, in a great act of kindness, we built a school in northern Uganda, and she named a building over there after my son. So we had a little ceremony and some of my athlete buddies and some of my friends were there and we had a ribbon cutting, and I noticed there were quite a few tears flowing that day, but the one who was hurt the most was Sister Rosemary. She was the one crying the most, she appeared to be the one suffering the most, but she never met my son. And I remember thinking, why is Rosemary hurting so bad? And I kind of figured it out, she has this unique talent to drain the suffering of others away and take it on herself, and I noticed that she's doing that to these children. When she's around these children, they're not hurting as bad, and I've never seen phenomena like that before, and I don't have the power to get her to get nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, but she should, and she should win it. Taking nothing away from the incredible work of Mother Teresa, who I'm a fan of, but nobody was trying to kill Mother Teresa like Rosemary, and I really think that would be a game changer in Uganda and it would be the right thing to do. And telling her story, maybe that'll happen, we'll see.
GRILLOT: Well Reggie, thank you so much for joining us today. It's such an inspirational story. Obviously what you shared with us about Sister Rosemary and we she shared with us previously on this show is so important, but what you've also shared in terms of what you've experienced and what you bring to us I think we all thank you for that, so thank you for being with us today and sharing that story with us.
WHITTEN: Thank you for having me.
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