A few years ago a vocal group, known as "The Chosen," visited the home of Sunnyside High School English teacher Maria Preston's parents, drawing the family's interest in helping the people of Uganda.
The group of youngsters, ages 9-11, was from Uganda and was traveling the U.S. to share the benefits of AIDS Orphans Education Trust (AOET) and all the organization had done for them.
Preston's father was first to travel to the African nation. He took two different trips in an effort to make a positive difference in the lives of children like those whom he hosted from "The Chosen."
Sharing his experiences with his daughter, Maria, she felt herself even more drawn to the efforts of AOET.
"I wanted to teach them, but I think they taught me more," shared the young teacher, who recently returned from her own trip to Uganda.
She said her duty was to fill in wherever she was needed at a newly established high school. The students over the course of nearly three weeks endeared themselves to her.
Preston said she was astounded at the classroom sizes and the age ranges included in a single classroom. A freshman class she taught contained approximately 130 students, ranging in age from 13 to 18.
The AOET organization established the high school with the assistance of funding provided by sponsors in Western nations, like the U.S.
The more financially capable families pay tuition for their youngsters to attend the school, but many of those helped by the organization are widows or orphans affected by the AIDS epidemic sweeping through many African nations like Uganda.
"Many of the children whom I came in contact with have been affected by AIDS in one way or another...many have lost loved ones because of it," said Preston, stating the youngsters aren't without hope, however.
"The joy they have in spite of the astounding difficulties and struggles of living everyday life was touching...they are so warm and joyful," she shared.
Preston said there are approximately 80 students at the high school who must stay there as boarders because of the distance to their homes.
"Some endure a two-hour bus ride each direction every day," she added.
Preston went to Uganda with a group of individuals wanting to make a difference in another country...a group of individuals wanting to expand their view of the world.
They were provided quarters in a compound set up specifically for volunteers of AOET. Preston said the cook, whom they referred to as Ja-ja (grandmother), was careful to make foods that would delight the Western palate and not upset the digestive system.
The organization's founders, Sam and Nancy Tushabe, travel from site to site, visiting the different bases set up throughout Africa. They happened to visit Bugembe, the site where Preston was staying, during the time the group was at the Rehaboth high school.
Preston said she spent some time with the couple, learning about their passion for helping others.
"The experience was eye-opening and humbling," she said, stating she went to Uganda with the purpose of giving to someone less fortunate, but found a people that was so generous she felt she received more than she could give.
"Any time we tried to do something for an individual, that person would turn around and give back by whatever means possible," Preston explained.
"They were generous in spirit and giving of their time."
That generosity, said Preston, made her grateful for all she has at home. She said there are many things people living in the U.S. take for granted, including herself.
"I am grateful we have paved roads, where they do not. I am grateful for consistent running electricity, speed limits and seat belt laws...the simple things," said Preston.
The food, she said, was "a fun thing." Because the people in Bugembe are accustomed to Westerners visiting them, they make foods that can be consumed without harm. Preston's favorite food was the Ugandan doughnut. She said Ja-ja taught her how to make the treat before the trip was over.
"It is made from flour, milk and eggs," said Preston.
Something surprising to the Sunnyside teacher was the culture of Uganda. She said there is a mix between tradition and Western among those living there. The culture is gradually changing and younger Ugandans can be seen wearing attire one is accustomed to seeing on a teen in the U.S. Others, those who hold on to tradition, wear attire that is modest. The women, said Preston, are required to cover up their legs and upper arms. Women wear dresses.
"The fabrics are beautiful and bold, colorful and vibrant," said Preston of the traditional wear.
Kampala, the nation's capital city, is where many could be seen wearing attire like that of Westerners.
As for the overall journey, Preston admits she left much of her heart with those whom she encountered while in Uganda, but she has a very big heart.
"I love helping children," she said.