The Watoto Children's Choir may well be the hardest-working group in show business. But for good reason. These children are not just singing for entertainment's sake, they are hoping to make an impact on audience members' lives.
The 18 Ugandan children in the Watoto choir coming to this area, performing 10 concerts in eight days, have lost one or both parents to civil war or the African AIDS pandemic.
They are enthusiastic about their music and are determined to put on a good show, but they take seriously their role as ambassadors of the 1.8 million orphans in Uganda and the 60 million orphans across Africa.
The Watoto choir members live in villages near Kampala that are part of the Watoto ministry, a Christian organization founded in 1991 by Canadian missionaries Gary and Marilyn Skinner (Watoto is Swahili for "children").
The ministry is a multi-pronged effort designed to help the orphans succeed in life and to develop the next generation of leaders of Uganda, according to the Skinners.
Watoto provides food and shelter, job skills, education, and a Christian environment for the youngsters.
Eugene Stutzman, leader of the choir that will be performing in northwest Ohio and southeast Michigan beginning tonight, left his hometown of Sugarcreek, Ohio, to be part of the Wototo team.
"One of the Watoto choirs came to our church a few years ago, and through that visit we joined a work team that went to Uganda for a two-week mission trip," Mr. Stutzman explained in an interview.
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The Ohio couple's visit to Uganda opened their eyes to the tremendous needs of the East African nation of 24 million that had endured the tyranny of dictator Idi Amin and then was ravaged by the AIDS/HIV crisis.
"When we learned about the opportunity to lead a choir, I sold my [construction] business and my wife quit her job," Mr. Stutzman said. "We've been doing this for two years now and we just committed to a third year."
Mr. Stutzman, 34, said he and his wife do not have children of their own, "but we have 18 beautiful Ugandan children."
It was the far-reaching vision of the Watoto ministry, combined with the severity of the orphans' problems, that inspired the Stutzmans to leave everything behind and get involved helping African children.
"We began to understand the vision of the Watoto ministry, to rescue 10,000 children, and even that would be just scratching the surface," Mr. Stutzman said.
There are now 1,500 children living in Watoto's Ugandan villages, he said, "so we know we have a long way to go."
The Watoto leaders have been working with other African organizations to teach them how to train choirs like Watoto and send them out into the world to spread the message, with an overall goal of rescuing 1 million orphans, Mr. Stutzman said.
There are five Watoto choirs now on tour, two in the United States, two in Canada, and one in Europe.
Choir members, who range in age from 6 to 14, train for five months and then travel on only one tour, after which they return to their villages to pursue an education.
"We have classes while we are on tour but we can only do so much on the road," Mr. Stutzman said. "So after one tour, the children go back to the Watoto homes and schools and continue their education.
"We want them to get the best education possible because one of the goals of the ministry is to raise up future leaders of Uganda. Whatever career they choose, we want them to make the world a better place," he said.
He said he and his wife have no regrets about leaving Ohio to work with the Ugandan children.
"It's probably one of the most rewarding things I've ever done. I've had several jobs prior but never did anything so fulfilling and rewarding - to see people's lives transformed, to see how they now have hope," he said.
Here is a list of upcoming performances in area by the Watoto Children's Choir of Uganda:
•Clyde High School, 1015 Race St., Clyde, Ohio, 7 tonight. 419-547-8693.
•Bethel Assembly of God, 6655 Indiana Ave., Perrysburg, 10 a.m. tomorrow. 419-874-2256.
•Calvary Assembly of God, 5025 Glendale Ave., Toledo, 6:30 p.m. tomorrow. 419-381-0254.
•Eagle's Nest Community Church, 620 East 4th St., Monroe, Mich., 7 p.m. Tuesday. 734-241-1502.
•St. Michael's in the Hills Episcopal Church, 4718 Brittany Rd., Toledo, 7 p.m. Wednesday. 419-531-1616.
•Living Faith United Methodist Church, 1240 Columbus St., Holland, Ohio, 7 p.m. Thursday
•Faith Lutheran Church, 2440 South Ave., Toledo, 6 p.m. Friday. 419-385-7459.
•Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church ,7295 Kruse Rd., Petersburg, Mich., 5 p.m. Feb. 16. 734-854-7985.
•Boulevard Church of Christ, 7041 West Sylvania Ave., Sylvania, 9 a.m. Feb. 17. 419-841-3061.
•Trinity United Methodist Church, 200 North Summit St., Bowling Green, 7 p.m. Feb. 17. 419-353-9031.
More information is available online at www.watoto.com.
- David Yonke