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A Noble calling

J. Adam Calaway

By J. Adam Calaway, Director of Communications and Public Relations

Posted May 22, 2013

If you need to find Steve Swigert, most days he'll be working in the Noble Research Institute's Agricultural Division. Weave through the building to the back hallway and there's his office. You'll know it's his, because some of the pictures and knickknacks seemingly don't match the man or the industry.

Sure, there are photos of his two grown daughters with wife Vicki. And there's some memorabilia from the University of Oklahoma (he's usually wearing it). But if you look closely, there's a small, Africa-shaped memory box on the corner of his desk and pictures of a lush green land that is clearly not Oklahoma.

Steve is an unassuming man, one of those guys who would do anything to help anybody. He has a bright smile, a hardy laugh that strikes a pleasant tenor and a grey mustache that could win a contest.

For more than 22 years, Steve has served as an agricultural economist for the Noble Research Institute, assisting farmers and ranchers in the Southern Great Plains with financial advice and business planning. His background is completely ag; he has two master's degrees in ag-related fields, and he managed a farming operation for almost a decade before coming to Noble. His livelihood is ag. His passions are ag and - as it turns out - Africa.

For almost 25 years, Steve has circled the globe, participating in and leading more than 30 mission trips for faith-based organizations. Two years ago, Steve's local church - First United Methodist in Ardmore, Okla. - came to Uganda to support the Watoto Child Care Ministries (Watoto is Swahili for "children"). Ardmore physician Mike Carnahan led an effort to construct a new medical clinic in one of the Watoto villages.

Steve was all in. This particular mission trip, however, would be different.

Watoto: Rebuilding a country

For a little background, Watoto Child Care Ministries sprouted from the Watoto Church in Kampala, Uganda.

Thirty years ago, Gary and Marilynn Skinner - poor missionaries, not billionaires as I originally assumed - walked into Uganda, believing they were called to bring life to a dying land.

The couple had zero resources, few connections and three children in tow. Imagine bringing your young family into the lion's den. The couple founded Watoto Church during Milton Obote's second tenure as president/dictator.

To put this in perspective, Uganda in the early 1980s resembled America's Wild West except with oppressive poverty, massive corruption and genocide mixed in. Hundreds of thousands of people were openly imprisoned and murdered, and the AIDS epidemic further unraveled an already tattered societal fabric. All of this didn't just happen. Decades of coups and genocide had left Uganda broken.

Obote was eventually exiled, and Watoto Church grew steadily. One day Gary Skinner visited a woman who had lost six children and a husband to AIDS. That moment, Gary wrote, defined the next pursuit. Soon the Skinners founded Watoto Child Care Ministries.

The concept behind Watoto is direct and profound.

The Watoto model focuses on orphaned children and vulnerable women. The program offers physical care, medical intervention (including treatment for HIV/AIDS), education (formal and technical), trauma counseling and spiritual discipleship.

The goal is to rear the next generation of African leaders, who have a solid moral compass and academic/technical training. Watoto leadership believes - and is being proven right - that you can change a country from within if you provide capable leaders.

Today, Watoto Child Care Ministries has more than 2,500 children (ages 3 months and up), living and learning in villages across Uganda. Once the children are accepted into the program, they are a part of the family for life.

And the family needs to grow. War and AIDs have left 2.6 million orphans in Uganda, and Watoto can only assist 1 percent. The goal is to ramp that up to 10,000 children. That's where Steve Swigert and Kent Donica, an agricultural producer from southern Oklahoma, come into play.

A mission of sustainability

Two years ago, Steve and Kent joined their first mission trip to Uganda, expecting to assist in a small agricultural project. What they found was a calling that matched their particular skill sets.

After the first day of touring the facilities, Steve and Kent realized the profound impact a sustainable agricultural program could have on the ministry. The idea was simple: help Watoto raise as much of its own food as possible. This would put vegetables and protein into the mouths of the orphans and also provide products to sell that could generate a revenue stream and further fund the mission.

Steve and Kent sat together that first night - with tears in their eyes - knowing the substantial task before them. "It's like trying to take a sip from a fire hose," Steve said.

And so it began.

Steve and Kent helped the organization map out a plan to better utilize their land resources and build infrastructure, while providing invaluable education to Watoto workers about cropping and animal husbandry.

Steve has returned to Uganda eight times in the last 24 months. Each time, he answers more questions, provides counsel and support, and helps troubleshoot everyday problems.

If he doesn't have the expertise, he knows where to find it. Often Steve calls or emails back to the Noble Research Institute, and his fellow agricultural consultants provide the answers.

Between each trip, Steve, Kent (who has returned twice) and their church have marshaled resources. Agricultural producers and business owners who hear the Watoto story have donated equipment that is loaded into giant containers and shipped around the world. Special fundraisers have yielded funding for agricultural needs. And individuals touched by the mission have flocked to lend their particular expertise.

What started with one goat barn and 30 goats has blossomed into an agricultural endeavor very near to full-scale production. Each Watoto site has a different project. The goat barn at Suubi now holds 120 goats and provides enough milk for Watoto's baby home. The once unimagined chicken facility at Buloba is mere months from going online. The Buloba site also houses a feed mill and a 15,000- bushel grain storage facility. The eggs will provide protein to the children, as well as be sold for profit. The grain storage will save the organization tens of thousands of dollars by holding grain for use in the dry season.

The 200-acre vegetable garden at Lubbe produces corn, rice and vegetables for the villages. And - at the urging of Steve - Watoto is preparing to turn 200 acres of high quality land into a working farm. Future plans include a 10,000-acre crop and livestock farm that would transform the organization.

The speed of change has struck awe in all involved. "I've seen hundreds of operations progress and grow, but nothing has ever come together so quickly. It's been less than two years," Steve said. "It's truly a God thing."

The relationship between the Noble Research Institute and Watoto grew as well this year. Supporting sustainable agriculture and advancing the industry has been the cornerstone of the Noble Research Institute mission. As the organization furthers its international reach, the connection with Watoto's sustainability and educational efforts was a natural fit.

Watoto, the Noble Research Institute and the international agricultural program at Oklahoma State University collaborated on a pilot program that will send one skilled student to Uganda for three months for on-the-ground experience. It is intended that the pilot program will blossom into a comprehensive program that regularly and continuously sends international agricultural graduate students from Oklahoma State University (and other universities) to Uganda.

The Watoto-Noble Fellows will be integrated into all aspects of Watoto's agricultural production system, including animal management, crop production, land stewardship, agronomy, water management, harvest, storage, distribution, food system development, marketing and economics. The intention is to benefit both Watoto and the participating fellows by giving them hands-on, in-country experiences - the goal is that this fellowship becomes a launching pad for students for a lifetime of giving back to agriculture and the people of the world.

Sarah Hart, an OSU graduate student, was the inaugural choice. Sarah's been traveling internationally for many years. She's quiet and unassuming, and right now she's part of our little traveling party headed to Uganda. (I'll fill you in more on her later.) The only piece of the story left to tell is mine.

A ginger in Africa

Last June, I happened to cut through the Agricultural Division building on my way back from a meeting. Steve pulled me into his office and told me the Watoto story. My entire life, I have never desired to travel to a developing nation. I'm fine right here, thank you very much.

As Steve talked that day, however, I knew I would go, and I knew I would go sooner than I could imagine. I was right.

Within nine months, I was filling out paperwork for a passport.

The opportunity was too spectacular to pass up. Travel to Africa for 10 days. See how the Noble Research Institute's efforts are helping establish sustainable agricultural practices that will benefit orphans and a country. And I get to write a blog. I'm all in.

Plus, I knew there was a jewel waiting for me in Africa - an experience, a moment, something that I had to see and do. People who embark on grand adventures often return changed. I figure I need a little tweaking.

Of course, this meant I had to get shots. I'll tell that story next time.