Like other seniors at Biola, 20-year-old Justin Wheeler was excited to be in his final year of college. He had mastered the routine of classes and studying, which allowed him time to take on an additional role — movement coordinator of a non-profit organization called “Invisible Children.”
Invisible Children is a social-justice movement that began in the spring of 2003 with three college-aged men who went to Northern Uganda. While there, they learned about children as young as 5 years old — many whom had been orphaned by AIDS — being kidnapped from their homes by a rebel group called the “Lord’s Resistance Army” and forced to become soldiers in a civil war, fighting against other child soldiers.
From this experience they created a documentary titled The Invisible Children, which has been shown at the United Nations Association in New York, N.Y.; The Carter Center in Atlanta, Ga.; and on Capitol Hill in Washington D.C. Footage from the film has been televised on the Oprah Winfrey Show, CNN, and the National Geographic Channel.
During the spring of 2005, The Invisible Children film came to Biola’s campus. After Wheeler watched the film, he was inspired, along with his friend and fellow Biola student Matt Provo, to go to Uganda that summer and see the Invisible Children of the film firsthand.
“I felt such anger after seeing the film. Once I got to Uganda I couldn't believe what I was seeing. It was very much like the documentary portrays,” Wheeler said.
While in Uganda, Wheeler and Provo visited schools around the country to better grasp what life was like for these children. They found out how poor and deficient the educational systems were. There is an 85 percent dropout rate for high school students and a 70 to 90 percent dropout rate for elementary school students, according to the District Education Office in Gulu, Uganda. Though public education is inexpensive, many children can’t afford the small cost of purchasing a uniform, which is required to attend.
Wheeler met with the founders of Invisible Children and proposed that they start paying to put children in school. As it stands now, the children join the armies because they can be guaranteed food and shelter.
So Wheeler joined the staff of the Invisible Children to create a program to educate children in Gulu. So far, the program has succeeded in putting 300 kids into boarding school. Each child is also enrolled in a mentorship program, where mentors take care of the kids. It is Wheeler’s long-term goal that the educational program will be self-sustainable and be run by Africans.
Besides educating children, Wheeler headed up a national tour of The Invisible Children film, showing it at universities, high schools and churches — with the hope that U.S. schools will fully sponsor Ugandan schools.
Wheeler says some are skeptical when they hear that this program is run by twentysomethings, many still in college. They ask, “What do these kids know about running a non-profit agency?” he said.
Yet the organization continues to prove their critics wrong as they have successfully started many programs to benefit the Invisible Children. They have even partnered with a long-time organization, World Vision, and are using World Vision’s sponsorship program as a model for their programs.
Beyond the tour, a full-length, independent film is expected to premiere in theaters in December. All the profits will go to supporting children in Uganda.
After graduating from Biola this spring, Wheeler returned to Uganda.
“I will continue my work with Invisible Children as long as God and my life will allow,” he said.
At least three other Biolans are also working with Invisible Children. Jared White (’05) lives in Gulu and serves as assistant director of operations in the education program. Matt Provo (’05) and his wife, Nicole (Spedick, ’06), moved to Uganda in July to join the team.