The most imaginative screenwriter could not invent the life of Julius Achon. It has been a crucible of devastating poverty, of war and blood, of cruelty so shocking it offends the conscience. But his story also teaches us about the power of hope, the determination of one man to achieve in the face of evils he could not abide.
Achon is a Ugandan runner, a two-time Olympian, holder of an American collegiate record in the outdoor 800 meters. In conversation, though, he bypasses these achievements to speak of the orphans of his country's civil war, and the charity he founded to care for them.
"My father taught us that even if you grow up in difficulty, you have to share what you have," says Achon, the oldest of nine children. "Each time I go home, I see my people dying and I have to remember them."
The Achon Uganda Children's Fund got its informal start in 2003. Achon was running near Lira, in northern Uganda, when he discovered 11 orphans living under a bus. The children were desperate, struggling to stay alive after rebels murdered their families. Achon, now 35, made a deal with his father: "House and feed them, and when I return to the United States, I'll send money to pay you back." The makeshift arrangement continued until the charity was formally approved as a nonprofit corporation in 2009.
Achon understood the lives of those orphans. Fifteen years earlier, the so-called Lord's Resistance Army kidnapped Achon and 14 of his friends.
Led by the warlord Joseph Kony, these rebels often stole children and forced them to fight, sometimes killing their own families. Parents dared not intervene during the abductions, which they were often witness to, because, as Julius says, "If you do, they shoot your child in front of you." Achon's own father, who watched as Julius was taken away, knew the only hope he had of saving his son was to let him go and pray that he would escape. Kony's men marched the boys 100 miles to their camp. They escaped three months later during an attack by government forces. But the warplanes mistook the boys for rebels and strafed them with machine guns. "The bullets came down like rain and they killed nine of my friends," says Achon. "Six of us made it home."
But he refused to bend. Running became his escape, his gateway to a future. "I didn't have one dollar to pay for school so I taught myself to run," says Achon. "I was told, 'If you run good, you get free education.'"
Achon’s success in local races earned him a scholarship at a prestigious high school in Kampala, the capital. The first time he slept in a bed was in the school dorm. In 1994, at 17, he ran in shoes for the first time, winning a gold medal at the World Junior Championships.
Twenty-one American colleges recruited Achon and he chose George Mason University in Virginia, arriving in 1995. “There was food everywhere and no mud,” he remembers. “The United States was like heaven to me.”
Achon twice won the indoor mile at the NCAA Championships. At the Olympics in Atlanta in 1996, and in 2000 in Sydney, he led the Ugandan contingent into the stadium as its captain. At the Sydney Games he reached the semi-finals in the 1500 meters.
But the war followed him. Achon was training for the 2004 Olympics when he learned that Kony’s men had murdered his mother, Kristina. She bled to death over four days, for a lack of money to transport her to the nearest hospital, 42 miles away.
The murder devastated Achon—and spurred him to work harder for his people. At the time he was under contract with Nike, making $1,600 a month as assistant coach to marathoner Alberto Salazar. Even with the high living costs in Portland, and supporting his wife’s family, he was able to send $150 a month back to Uganda for his charity.
Achon’s effort to help the orphans got a major boost when he met Jim Fee, a former executive for a medical products company. Fee was so taken by Achon’s story that, in 2008, he began donating $500 a quarter to the charity. In 2010, after visiting Uganda, Fee pledged another $20,000.
With that money, along with donations from Nike, Rotary Clubs International and others, Achon Uganda built a 10-room clinic in Achon’s village and housing for doctors and staff. Today, the charity cares for 37 orphans—11 living with Achon’s brother, the remaining 26 with relatives in surrounding villages. Housing, food, health care and school fees cost $25 per orphan per month.
Fee, now Achon Uganda Children’s Fund’s executive director, says meeting Julius changed his life. “Here’s this guy, who has virtually nothing, taking care of kids in Africa with his brother and parents,” says Fee (Achon’s father remarried after his mother’s death.) “He’s an unbelievable man with a huge heart. I love running, I was retired, and I thought, if there’s ever going to be a second calling for me, this is it.”
Achon has made a life for himself in Portland with wife, Grace, and 1-year-old son, Jayden. His degree still a priority after dropping out of George Mason for an urgent trip to Uganda, he enrolled at the University of Phoenix in May of 2009 and finished his bachelor of science in communication two years later.
He considers getting his degree an honor as great as any he has achieved. “I’m the first person in my community of 20,000 to graduate from a university in the United States.”
Achon makes frequent appearances to raise money, telling audiences that although Kony fled Uganda in 2006, the work is not finished. He’s focused now on building a maternity ward, and because of what happened to his mother, buying an ambulance.
Whenever Achon feels frustrated at the pace of fundraising, he thinks about those bus orphans, two of them now grown. Samuel, 18, is on a track scholarship in Kampala, and one of the girls, Mary, is training to become a nurse. Neither would’ve been possible if Achon had walked away that day. Asked why he didn’t, his answer is beautiful for its simplicity. “I couldn’t because they were so much like me,” Achon says. “I thought, ‘Maybe they have hope, too.’”
For more information about the BS/COM-CC, visit phoenix.edu >