When The Recreation Project was founded in 2010, Northern Uganda was emerging from a decades-long civil conflict with the Lord’s Resistance Army. A generation of young people in Gulu had few memories unmarked by the terror of the war. As children abducted during the war returned home, there was an urgent need for psychosocial interventions to assist young people in their journey as they healed from the trauma of war. Ten years ago, The Recreation Project was born from this need. Since that time, Uganda has grown tremendously. By 2015, the country had halved its poverty level, exceeding its original millennium development goal. This past month, Gulu officially gained city status. This transition is a marker of the long journey that Uganda, particularly the north, has made on the road to recovery.
Though the context in which The Recreation Project operates has changed, the overall mission of ensuring that children are prepared to thrive is as key to our operations as ever. We remain dedicated to empowering young people to thrive in the face of adversity through transformative play and outdoor adventure.
While the region is no longer defined by its conflict, northern Uganda suffers from a public health crisis that affects communities around the globe and has gained notoriety in recent years: the crisis of childhood adversity.
Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) include abuse, neglect, or household challenges such as one or more parents serving jail time, experienced within the first 18 years of life. The effects of these experiences, however, last far beyond the day that a child turns 18. Exposure to abuse is linked to multiple risk factors for several of the leading causes of death in adults. Compared to those with no adverse childhood experiences, those with four or more were found to be 6.1 times more likely to have received treatment for a mental illness, and 9.5 times more likely to have self-harmed. Globally, ACEs are the largest single preventable cause of mental health disorders, causing 29% of disorders. When young people experience adversity, they are less likely to live healthy, productive, and fulfilling lives.
Children in low and middle-income countries, like Uganda, experience ACEs at a rate much higher than in the United States, where ACEs were first studied. A sample of adolescents from the Global Early Adolescence Study shows that children in low and middle-income countries experience rates of ACEs at least 10% higher than the national average among adults in the U.S. In the youngest and fastest-growing region in the world, it is vitally important that we flip this narrative.
“Most of the youth that we interface with have experienced adverse childhood experiences from their respective communities which include enduring or being exposed to abuse or neglect, familial violence, mental illness, and so on,” says Denish Acellam, our Program Director.
The good news is that ACEs aren’t a death sentence. In fact, preventing both exposure and the negative long-term effects don’t necessarily require high-cost psychiatric intervention. Protection from ACEs actually looks a lot like how many kids may already be spending their summers — going to summer camp and trying new things, making friends, discussing dreams and big ideas over family dinner, or having a trusted relative or mentor ask about progress in school. These experiences build relationships, foster resilience, and save lives.
Building both internal and external resilience has been identified as an effective way to manage the long-term effects of ACEs. Resilience is defined as the ability to overcome serious hardship. Internally, this looks like problem-solving, sense of purpose, and social skills. Externally, community support, positive relationships, and cultural connections have been identified as factors that support resilience in youth. When children are challenged and required to think flexibly, when they learn to process both success and failure in a safe environment, when they build relationships with facilitators and engage with networks of support, they leave feeling more prepared to face challenges in the real world. For all of these reasons, exposing youth to outdoor adventure and transformative play is an important mechanism for building resilience.
“Let’s look at the zip line, for example,” explains Charles Ogeno, TRP’s Operations Director. “In the past, I used to facilitate the zip line. I would be at the platform, I would get participants who were fearing, panicking—a person who doesn’t want to go down the zipline, a person who is crying at the zipline. As a facilitator, sometimes you encourage that person. You keep on encouraging, encouraging, encouraging, supporting that person. After giving that person some support and encouragement, they accept to go down the zipline. When the person gets down, at the dismount point, you can see the person is laughing, smiling with friends, saying ‘I couldn’t imagine that I could do this.’ And you can see that this person has recovered from that difficult moment.”
“This is what I call resilience,” Charles continues. “Resilience is all about recovering from difficult situations. The Recreation Project is building resilience, even in an activity as simple as the zipline.”
Nonetheless, resilience can’t be built in a day. Knowing this, The Recreation Project is committed to expanding resilience programs into the long term. Programs like Climbing Club and our work with Gulu Remand Home show us that long-term resilience-building programs lasting up to 15 weeks are not only possible, but successful. With this in mind, we are excited to focus on expanding other programs and build resilience over months instead of days.
Like Northern Uganda, The Recreation Project has grown and changed a lot over the past ten years. Also like Northern Uganda, we know we still have lots more growing to do. The Recreation Project’s mission of empowering children to overcome adversity remains strong, and we can’t wait to take it into the next decade.