Peace Corps Uganda implements a Glow Camp: in the loving memory of Returned Peace Corps Volunteer Hellen Phan

Hellen Phan and her dog in Uganda
By Dr. Lily Asrat
Feb. 12, 2024

On Nov 10, 2023, Peace Corps Uganda received an email from Harry Lesti informing us that a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer (RPCV) from Northen Uganda, Hellen Phan, had passed away.

The email

I read the email with a heavy heart and with the determination that whatever Harry wanted, we were going to make it happen! While serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Uganda, Hellen and Harry met and fell in love. Together they implemented a Glow Camp which is a Peace Corps empowerment camp for adolescent girls and young women. Harry's dream, along with one of her former camp graduates, Patricia, was to return to the place where they met and implement a camp in her memory. The Peace Corps Uganda family put our heads and hearts together to make it happen…. in the loving memory of Hellen Phan.

Peace Corps Uganda remembers

The Peace Corps experience is a unique one. Peace Corps Volunteers maintain memories of their time in service for a lifetime. Similarly, Peace Corps staff remember Volunteers who come in and out of our lives. These experiences with and of each other are unique and leave a permanent imprint: long days of training (Pre-Service Training), significant interaction and support throughout service, and often seeing people at their most vulnerable when they are homesick, distressed, and struggling. When the email first came in, I sent a message asking who remembers Hellen Phan? The emails started rolling in including memories, images, and of course stories. All who knew her sang her praises. Everyone was in support. Let’s pull up our sleeves and get to work.

Hellen Phan in Uganda
Hellen Phan as a Volunteer in Uganda

Peace Corps Uganda comes together

I sent an email to Volunteer, Greg, who serves in the same community. He responded almost immediately and committed to support Harry. I reached out to Jenny, our Grant Coordinator, and she willingly accepted to pitch in. Our Agriculture and Economic Development (AED) Program Manager, Irene, did the same as did our program staff in our Gulu office, Samali. Greg recruited fellow Volunteers … Kate, Joseph, and Nathan. It was a done deal. With support from the Country Director, PC staff, Volunteers, and the community, plans were in full swing. This is what the Peace Corps family does, in poignant moments such as this one, Peace Corps Uganda staff, Volunteers, and community come together to put our mission into action, in peace and friendship.

Camp Glow

This camp is an initiative of the Peace Corps. It focuses on empowerment of adolescent girls and young women and is inclusive of health education, life skills, career goals, sports, creative arts, and leadership. This memorable camp was held at Bishop Tarantino College, where Hellen Phan was a Volunteer. The goal of the camp is to empower girls to increase self-esteem, happiness, and friendships and gain skills on goal settings, self-reflection, self-defense, conflict de-escalation and independence. Medical personnel were on hand to educate the girls about menstruation, taking care of their bodies, puberty, sex education, condom use, making Reusable Menstrual Pads (RUMPS) and decisions about intimacy. Medical personnel provided content on HIV prevention education. In the evenings, the girls were treated to movies and a chance to practice skills from the day’s learning.

It takes a village
Peace Corps Uganda Volunteers, staff, and Camp Glow girls

It takes a village

The implementation of this camp was indeed multi-dimensional. Peace Corps Uganda staff supported the planning and execution including budget support for the camp. Four teachers from Tarantino College were on hand to help organize the day. Peace Corps Volunteers facilitated the classes as groups of girls rotated throughout the days. Harry provided the funds to finance the camp and Peace Corps Uganda chipped in where there were resource gaps.

A Glow Girl gives back

Harry mentioned that a former graduate of the Glow Camp was now a teacher and wanted to give back. Days later, I received the below email.

My name is Patricia, a former Glow girl, 2010 (Kisubi). I met Hellen in 2010 when I was a student at Bishop Tarantino College, and she was a Peace Corps Volunteer. In 2010, Hellen and Harry organized a three-day Glow Camp. The experience was enriching! Camp Glow helped me become who I am today and in the same way Hellen and I felt other girls should be empowered too. May Hellen's soul rest in peace.

She concluded by thanking us and Greg for taking this up. In fact, is us who should be thanking Patricia. She has shown us that the efforts of Volunteers stay with the young people they impact. Patricia has grown up to be a successful, beautiful woman and role model. She wants to give back to the young girls in her community. She wants to extend a gesture of support, friendship, and love. Hellen would be proud to know the fruits of her labor continue today and Patricia is a living, breathing embodiment of that spirit. It was a full circle moment - the former “Glow Girl” who benefited from the camp in 2010, was now the inspiration and camp facilitator. This is what the Peace Corps impact looks like!

girls at Glow Camp
Girls gaining skills at camp
Glow girls at camp with Volunteer
Volunteer Greg with girls at Glow Camp

Remembering Hellen

Every Peace Corps Volunteer has a story to tell about the people they met, the relationships they built, and the people who touched them forever. To this day, I think about my village of Onayena in Northern Namibia where I served. I think of the Peace Corps staff who became a life-long friend. I think of my host family, my mom (Meme Muleka), my beautiful sisters (Galu and Happy), the old man (Tate Kulu), and most of all the wonderful, lovely children on my compound who are now grown men and women with families of their own. My Peace Corps experience in Namibia starts and ends with the children and the people whose memories I so lovingly cherish to this day.

Image of Ugandans celebrating
Vintage photos of Harry, Hellen, and her neighbors (2010)
Reconnecting with old neighbors in Uganda
Harry and Hellen's neighbors reunite

Hellen was no different. Harry was able to locate Hellen’s neighbor. The woman and her son came to meet Harry and to show him pictures they still had of Hellen holding her now grown-up son. They may not remember what Hellen taught or what state she hails from, but they remembered her smile, her spirit, and her warmth.

Sustaining the impact

At the end of the camp, the girls celebrated their success with Certificates of Achievement. By the close of the camp, the girls indicated attainment of increased confidence, self-awareness, knowledge, and independence. The girls, teachers, and school director requested that the Peace Corps Uganda team and Volunteers return for a second GLOW Camp. This is perhaps the best indicator of success!

During the camp, the girls are reminded that their learning and teaching does not end there. As Glow Girls, they have learned a lot about being empowered and being leaders. The Glow Girls take the new learning and skills they gained back to their communities and schools and start clubs which are the platforms to transfer skills to their friends and classmates. Patricia did her part and gave back to these girls. In much the same way, these lovely girls have the sprit, energy, and commitment to pay it forward. We wish them the very best and expect nothing less!

Hellen and Harry at equator
Hellen and Harry at the Equator

For Hellen,
Hellen's afterglow is ever-present for me and her death remains a mystery that I somehow feel powerless against. For almost a year, I have been trying to comprehend and come to terms with the unimaginable and inevitable.

Day by day, memories, longing, sadness, and pain come flooding in, challenging the infinite gratitude for Hellen's love and our wonderful, shared time that I hold. At the end of December, 2023, I flew to Uganda, to the place where our beautiful love story began. Hellen had already ensured back then that the "German Guy" wouldn't get lost in the jungle during chimpanzee trekking and wouldn't lose sight of what truly matters. I had to return to this special place to scatter some of Hellen's ashes in the jungle.

Another heartfelt matter for me was the GLOW Project that Hellen and I carried out together 12 years ago. A former GLOW Girl, Patricia, asked Hellen if she could assist in reviving this project and support her in its implementation. Unfortunately, Hellen could not return to Uganda. For me, it was crucial to support Patricia and revive the camp. Thanks to the donations from Hellen's memorial service in Germany/Hollenbach and through a collaborative effort between Patricia, Peace Corps Volunteers, and myself, the camp was successfully conducted for 15 young women.

Hellen and I were volunteer development workers in Uganda, seeking "the deeper meaning of life." We were incredibly fortunate to actually find it. We had so many plans and dreams that will remain unfulfilled, but perhaps they can live on through others and lead Hellen's afterglow to a new glow.

Thanks to all our supporters and dear friends!

Harry

Hellen in yellow T shirt
Hellen in Uganda
Hellen in Uganda
Hellen in Uganda
Hellen running
Hellen running