Running Toward Hope

By Robyn Wilson
Photos by Levi Rodgers

After being inspired by his grandfather, a boy in Uganda overcomes poverty and goes on to become a vice president at OneChild, where he spends his life championing kids around the world.

Thump. Thump. Thump.

Jacob Kitonsa could hear his feet hit the ground as he ran to school. Ten miles. Each way. Over rocks and sticks. Barefoot because he didn’t have money for shoes.

His family, who lived in Kikonge, a poverty-stricken Ugandan village, didn’t have electricity or a clock, but the sun faithfully woke Jacob up each morning.

The journey to Kabulamuliro Primary School was strenuous. But Jacob, 10 at the time, didn’t mind. Because each step he ran was one step closer to achieving his dreams.

“Going to school was a blessing and a joy,” says Jacob. “Most kids in our village didn’t have the opportunity to graduate and improve their lives. When many children came to school, they were sent home because their parents couldn’t afford the fees. And many girls could not go to school because their parents believed they were only made for marriage.”

But Jacob’s grandparents, who raised him along with his siblings, did everything they could to ensure that the kids received an education. Jacob’s grandparents worked hard as small-scale farmers growing sweet potatoes, corn, and bananas — but they barely made enough to survive.

“They sacrificed the little money they had to send me to school,” says Jacob. “They saw the value of education.”

After running home from school, Jacob’s evenings were spent helping his grandparents on the farm, hiking through the forest to gather firewood, and walking several miles to fetch water.

It was critical that Jacob fetch water because the community had no running water. His family needed water for drinking, cooking, cleaning, and bathing. “I found water from man-made or natural wells, or valleys where water would gather when it rained. The water was full of everything you can imagine. This led to many health issues.”

However, since Kikonge was one of the most remote villages in central Uganda, there were no hospitals. The nearest clinic, which lacked medicine, was 15 miles away. When a child was sick, community leaders would try to help by cutting the child’s skin and placing local herbs inside the wound. But this method of healing often caused more damage.

“I still have scars, even today as we speak,” says Jacob. “I have scars on my knees. Scars on my hands. I couldn’t go to the hospital when I had a fever or wound. That’s how I grew up. But I survived. Somehow God protected me.”

Learning to Love God and People

Although Jacob’s childhood was filled with challenges, he looks back on those years with gratitude. Jacob thanks God for giving him the strength and determination to overcome.

He is also grateful for his grandfather, who encouraged him to live for God. “My grandfather taught me the most important thing: to love God and people,” says Jacob. “He discipled me. He taught me the importance of serving others. I could literally see him blessing other people. He lived out his faith. The longer I lived with him, the more I learned to love God and people.”

Jacob’s grandfather, who heard about Jesus through missionaries from England in the late 1800s, was one of the first Christians in Uganda.

“Before missionaries came, most Ugandans believed in witchcraft and ancestral spirits,” Jacob says. “But the missionaries introduced people to the almighty God, the loving and caring God. When my grandfather heard that news, he believed. During that time, those who became Christians were persecuted. Many were killed. But my grandfather kept the faith. He even built the first church in our community, Kabulamuliro Church of Uganda. It is still there today.”

The Power of a Child Champion

Throughout his childhood, Jacob’s grandfather also taught Jacob to never give up. “My grandfather helped me understand what hope means,” says Jacob. “He saw potential in me, loved me, encouraged me, and taught me that even though you go through hard times, that’s not the end of you. We went through very hard times as a family, including poverty. And while I was growing up, Uganda was experiencing political and civil unrest. There was war and bloodshed. But my grandfather told me to have faith in God and to have hope for tomorrow.”

Jacob’s grandfather also inspired Jacob to thrive as a leader. “I was the overseer of our household facilities, which helped me learn to lead,” Jacob says. “That spirit grew up with me. I was a student leader at primary school. And at Mityana Secondary School, I became student president. I understood what it meant to be a leader from childhood. My grandfather — my Child Champion — helped me believe in myself.”

During Jacob’s time in college, he continued to shine as a leader. Jacob excelled at Makerere University in Kampala, where he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in management and administration, and at Uganda Management Institute, where he earned a master’s degree in management. Next, Jacob attended International Leadership University in Nairobi, where he received a master’s degree in strategic leadership, and Denver Seminary, where he earned his doctorate in executive leadership.

“I was passionate about studying politics and government so I could help change the country,” says Jacob. “But by the time I completed university, the Lord told me, ‘I want you to use your skills to equip and empower other people who will transform families, churches, and communities for Christ.’”

Today, Jacob is fulfilling God’s calling as vice president of global program at OneChild. “For 25 years, the Lord has blessed me with opportunities to serve Him in ministry,” he says. “At OneChild, we equip and empower Child Champions — people on the front line — to walk alongside children. Our commitment is to encourage Child Champions in every community, in those hard places, so kids can thrive. I also inspire young people to pursue education and skills so they can use the gifts God has given them to bless other people and nations.”

A Seed of Hope

Jacob is so committed to helping children in poverty overcome because he lived it.

“I know what it means to grow up in need,” he says. “I know when children are not given an opportunity, their potential cannot be realized. Many children don’t have an opportunity to be encouraged. The Lord has allowed me to be a living example for them. Children just need that one opportunity — a seed of hope — so they can become what God has made them to be.”

Every time Jacob visits his village in Uganda, he grows more inspired to advocate for children in hard places. “Seeing where I am today and seeing where God has brought me from gives me a sense of joy but also a heavy heart,” he says. “Unfortunately, not all children have the same opportunities I did.”

With tears in his eyes, Jacob recalls one of those children — Christopher, his best friend growing up. “I loved Christopher,” he says. “We did everything together. Last time I went back to the village, I found out Christopher didn’t make it. As a child, his parents could not afford school fees, so he had to quit school. Out of frustration, Christopher turned to drinking and gave up. He never had an opportunity. It broke my heart. On that trip I discovered more than half of the children I met couldn’t afford school fees. There are many children who are losing hope. Whenever I go back, I shed tears. The need is great. But I believe by God’s grace He will open up doors for those children.”

Running Toward a Better Future

As Jacob reflects on his life, he is humbled that God has called him to champion vulnerable children. He is also thankful that God has blessed him with a loving family who inspires him on his journey. His wife, Sarah, encourages him to continue being a voice for the voiceless. And his four kids remind him of the amazing potential that God has placed in every child.

Jacob is also grateful for his grandfather, who helped him become the man that he is today. “My grandfather continued to serve God until literally he ran out of strength,” says Jacob. “I remember when I heard the news that my grandfather had passed away after living a long life. It was very difficult for me. It took me a long time to travel back to our village. But when I went, I saw all the people praising God for the good life he lived and the investment he made in our lives.”

Because Jacob had a caring adult who championed him as a child, his potential was limitless. He says, “If I hadn’t had a Child Champion who believed in me, I wouldn’t be where I am today.”

Jacob may no longer run to school each morning like he did as a boy. But he’s still running. Today, he is running toward hope — hope that one day all children in poverty will have the opportunity to achieve their dreams like he did. And he’s thankful for all the faithful Child Champions who are running with him, so kids around the world know that all things are possible with God.

My grandfather — my Child Champion — helped me believe in myself.”

Watch Jacob’s powerful story in his own words.

 

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