Into Africa: How Saratoga’s The Giving Circle Is Fighting Poverty Around The World

This past summer, I was able to see Saratoga Springs’ generosity on a global scale. Back in July, my husband and I traveled to Uganda, Africa, with a group of local volunteers led by Mark and Kelly Bertrand, co-founders of The Giving Circle (Aaron Gryder is its third co-founder). The Saratoga-based nonprofit pledges, among other things, to end poverty—a lofty goal, I realize, but not one that’s out of reach, as I learned firsthand. Once in Uganda, we were bussed to Kagoma Gate, one of the country’s poorest villages, and I’ll never forget, as we approached it, suddenly being surrounded by hundreds of excited children, many of whom were shoeless. Stepping off the bus, I was grateful to be wearing sunglasses, because I was completely overcome with emotion, seeing these beautiful children, all so happy despite the poverty that surrounded them. It was amazing interacting with them; some spoke English, while many of the younger kids only spoke Swahili. They found my smartphone fascinating and enjoyed looking through photographs of my farm animals, sunsets, the ocean and snow. 

We were in Kagoma Gate for one week and spent every day with the children, playing soccer, making sock puppets and handing out the supplies we’d brought with us—everything from shoes and clothing to school supplies and soccer balls. One day, I taught back-to-back Zumba classes at the local school. The kids had a ball and, quite frankly, danced circles around me. The experience provided instant perspective and made me realize how truly blessed I am to live in Saratoga and know Mark and Kelly Bertrand.

The Giving Circle story began three decades ago, when Mark met and fell in love with his future wife and co-founder, Kelly. The couple shared a passion for helping others in need, and one of Mark’s lifelong goals had been to make a difference in Africa. He promised Kelly that someday she’d have an orphanage named after her there. Fast-forward to 2005, when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, and Mark and Kelly were driving home from vacation, trying to figure out a way to pitch in. They decided to launch a holiday-themed campaign, beginning with an email to everyone in their friend circle with two requests: send them a gift or gift card to give to children affected by the hurricane; and then forward the email on to their friends and so on. The campaign took off and gifts started pouring in to the Bertrands from across the country. Later, they loaded the gifts onto a tractor trailer, headed down to Louisiana and provided Christmas to more than 7000 children and families in need. 

Mark Bertrand (center), co- founder of The Giving Circle; students at the Busoga Junior School. (Lisa Mitzen)

The following spring, the couple formally launched The Giving Circle, with Mark taking on the role of executive director, and Kelly, treasurer. The charity immediately began helping those in need, locally and nationally, but Mark’s desire to make a difference in Africa never wavered. Then, by chance, he received an email from a friend, who’d sent him photos from a recent trip to Africa: One photo featured a Ugandan orphan wearing a Ballston Spa High School football shirt. Mark, a Ballston Spa graduate, took it as a sign. So, in 2010, he traveled to Uganda to the very orphanage featured in the photo. The tiny orphanage and its school were being run by a gentleman named Moses. Mark agreed to help expand the orphanage and school and improve their overall conditions. Moses and Mark also ventured to the village of Kagoma Gater. The first thing he and Moses built there was a playground with swing sets. “Every child should be able to swing and play,” says Mark. He waited with great anticipation for the children’s reaction to their brand-new playground, but they all just stood there, staring. “Why aren’t they playing?” he asked Moses, and Moses responded, “Because they don’t know how to; they’ve never seen anything like this before.” So, Mark and Moses hopped on the swings and started swinging, and within seconds, the kids followed suit. 

In just under a decade, The Giving Circle’s impact in Africa has been nothing short of extraordinary. In Kagoma Gate, volunteers have installed a water filtering system and latrines, a school with classrooms and a kitchen that prepares two meals per day for the students. There’s also a medical clinic. “We had no deaths this year, and for a village [in Uganda] not to have a death from malaria is unheard of,” says Mark. Also, that original orphanage is now known as the Koi Koi House. (Mark kept his promise to Kelly; “Koi Koi” is Kelly’s childhood nickname.) The building houses 21 children that Mark and Kelly have parental guardianship over, and Kelly’s known and adored widely as “Mama Koi Koi.” The building also houses deaf children and kids that live too far away to be able to attend the Busoga Junior School, located on the same property. The school’s population, which was originally just 25, has now ballooned to 400 students, and everyone—students and teachers alike—are taught sign language so that they can all communicate and play together. It’s truly one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen in my life. 

Besides its work in Africa, The Giving Circle has assisted during ten national disasters; partnered with several local nonprofits to help people in need; and played an integral role in the opening of Shelters of Saratoga’s Code Blue Saratoga, a winter-weather homeless shelter first set up in Saratoga in 2013. The Giving Circle’s also expanded its international reach to Afghanistan, where it helped to establish an all-girls school, which now houses 39 young women studying to become teachers. 

Mark and Kelly’s dream was to establish a charity with no overhead, and initially, they were laughed at, but eventually proved the naysayers wrong. The now 13-year-old nonprofit has zero overhead, a volunteer board of directors, and not a single employee there is paid a salary. Every dollar donated to The Giving Circle goes directly to help those in need. “The biggest goal is self-sustainability, so that long after we’re gone, everything will be fine,” says Mark. “We’ve proved, as a charity, that this can be done. We’re an ever-expanding circle of compassion.” Did I mention that my husband and I will be returning to Africa in February?   

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