MADISON (WKOW) -- Joel Baraka can only imagine how much more challenging the COVID-19 pandemic has made learning in the Ugandan refugee camp in which he grew up. It prompted him to start a fundraiser to cover the costs of mass producing the board game he created for children in the camp.
With the help of the construction firm where he interned over the summer, Baraka said he was able to meet and surpass his goal of raising $10,000 for the Kyangwali refugee camp.
"It's very hard for a child to come from nowhere, when you don't see doctors, engineers -- see them in your village -- to think big," Baraka said.
Baraka is an engineering major at UW-Madison. He came to Wisconsin in 2017 by way of the Kyangwali camp, where his family arrived shortly after Baraka's birth. The family was fleeing violence in their native Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Baraka said, while growing up in the camp, he developed a passion for education because of conversations with his mother.
"She would be like, 'I hope when you go to school, you can work hard and then, one day, you can maybe get an office job and you don't have to be working on the fields like me and your dad all day long,'" Baraka said.
Baraka said he began to develop the concept of his idea for the board game, called 'The 5 STA-Z.' The game envelops five different subjects, including English, math, and social studies. Baraka said the game, which includes up to five players, is ideal for the camp since it allows kids to break up into much-needed small groups.
"When I was going to school, you'd find that some classes are up to 200 (students)," Baraka said. "I think my class in grade three, grade four, we had 150 children in one class."
When Baraka interned over the summer at CG Schmidt Construction's Madison office, Vice President Sarah Dunn said Baraka stood out, both because of what he did not have and willingness to help wherever he could.
"Didn't have a car so he couldn't go out to construction sites like most of the interns," Dunn said. "So we created a special position for him in the office to expose him to all the different departments."
During his time in the office, Dunn said Baraka made an impression -- he did everything from watering the lawn to putting together the new front desk -- so she said she didn't hesitate when he mentioned his effort to raise money for the Kyangwali camp.
"When he approached me, I made my donation and then I just encouraged people within the company, in our Madison location, to really join the effort and support Joel," Dunn said.
Eventually, workers at the office donated $550 to the effort. The company then matched that total, bringing Baraka to and beyond his $10,000 goal. To date, he has raised more than $11,000 and hopes to bring in more.
"The company played a big role," Baraka said. "To me, that was humbling, seeing I had just been working with them for about three months and they're showing up to support me."
Baraka said the money he's raised so far will help hire an additional 20 counselors for the camp and produce an additional 200 sets of the 5 STA-Z game. He is on track to earn his engineering degree in May 2022.