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From Africa, with a song of hope Young orphans tour as choir for AIDS awareness

All the way from East Africa, a group of 18 orphaned children will visit four area churches next weekend to sing their way into the hearts of Western New Yorkers.

The Watoto Children's Choir from Uganda -- which has sung in the White House for President Bush -- is scheduled for two performances in Buffalo Saturday and Sunday.

The "Concerts of Hope" tours raise awareness and money for Watoto Child Care Ministries, an initiative aimed at caring for Ugandan children who lost their parents to AIDS.

Victory Assembly of God, 688 Tonawanda St., will host the singers for a 7 p.m. performance Saturday; the choir will sing again at 6 p.m. Sunday in Expressway Assembly of God, 260 Eggert Road.

The children range in age from 6 to 13 and sing a mix of contemporary gospel and native African rhythms in English and in their native language, Lugandan.

They rehearse for up to five months before going on tour for half the year. The Buffalo stops are two of about 200 performances scheduled for this trip, said Don Champion, United States director of Watoto.

In addition to the current U.S. choir, four other groups of Ugandan orphans are singing on tours in places such as Britain and Australia, Champion said.

The group coming to Western New York is the 23rd since the choir was formed in 1994 to support the building and operation of three Watoto Children's Villages for 1,500 orphans in Uganda.

The villages include 127 homes for up to eight children, as well as schools and medical clinics.

"Watoto adopts the children, and what is really unique about the Watoto ministry is that they put the child in a home with a mother," Champion said. "They grow up in a home atmosphere rather than an institutional setting."

There is no charge for the concerts, but listeners often end up making donations or sponsoring a Watoto child or mother for $30 a month.

"Most of the time people feel such a connection with the children that they wind up giving something," Champion said.

The Rev. Tom Poulin found the group so compelling that he ended up joining the tour for two years, prior to being named pastor of Expressway Assembly of God.

Poulin, who hails from Cornwall, Ont., is bilingual in French and English and served as an interpreter for the choir.

He described their performances as high-energy and "very, very lively."

The children wear Ugandan costumes and dance down the aisles of churches to the beat of African drums.

"They love doing it," Poulin said. "Their hearts are so wide open. They're very embracing and very loving."

Pastor Gary Skinner, a Pentecostal preacher from Canada, and his wife, Marilyn, founded Watoto Child Care Ministries in 1992 to help address the orphan crisis in Uganda, where more than 2 million children have lost parents from either the African AIDS epidemic or civil war in their homeland.

The organization hopes to provide homes for 10,000 children. The houses are built by volunteers from around the world.

This will be the choir's first stop in Western New York. It also will be performing at 7 p.m. Friday in Wellsville Full Gospel Church, 2221 Hanover Hill Road, Wellsville, and at 10:30 a.m. Sunday in Roberts Free Memorial Methodist Church, 111 South St., Cattaraugus.

The tours are funded through the sale of Watoto compact discs, DVDs and African jewelry at the concert sites.

e-mail: jtokasz@buffnews.com

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