Child By Child

From the Fall 2012 edition of Vanderbilt Business

Jim Steele, MBA’82, knows what it’s like to be up against tough odds. Eight years ago he was diagnosed with Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease and spinocerebellar ataxia, both genetic neuromuscular conditions that have since left him disabled.

“I have partial symptoms of both, but the doctors can’t do anything for either one,” he says. “They’re progressive diseases, and unfortunately they’re doing just that—progressing.”


Steele, however, also knows that even the toughest of odds can lead to surprising outcomes. His work with Uganda Children’s Project, a nonprofit organization that he and his wife, Lisa, founded 11 years ago, is a testament to what can be accomplished in the face of adversity. Thanks to the group’s efforts, countless orphaned and desperately poor Ugandan children have enjoyed educational opportunities that otherwise would not have been possible.

“Something has to be done to help this disenfranchised class climb out of the ghetto,” he says. “Education gives them that chance.”

Uganda Children’s Project, which grew out of mission work at Steele’s church near Chattanooga, Tenn., currently has around 240 children and young adults paired with sponsors throughout the U.S., Europe and Australia. The group’s two full-time Ugandan employees are responsible for identifying potential children for the project, while Steele and his wife focus on the sponsorships.

“I draw upon my MBA experience for all of the finance, marketing and operations that go into this,” he says. “For example, we work in several foreign currencies right now, and trying to manage the exchange rate against a very unstable Ugandan shilling is difficult.”

An unstable currency is just one of the problems facing Uganda these days. Years of political turmoil, corruption and a devastating AIDS epidemic have all left their mark on the country. Yet Steele isn’t daunted by the challenges.

“We’ve never felt like we were called to deal with the big problems in Uganda,” he says. “We can only keep working our own way—child by child, sponsor by sponsor.”

Fittingly it’s the same philosophy that defines Steele’s own personal struggle against tough odds: Take things day by day, step by step, and relish the small victories.

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