She was an Olympic hopeful, he was a child soldier. Here’s how founders Eloise Wellings, Julius Achon and their friend Caitlin Barrett first came together to create real change in Uganda.
Eloise and Julius on her first visit to Uganda in 2009
As long as she can remember, Eloise Wellings wanted to compete at the Olympics. As a child she would visualise winning gold – standing proudly on her makeshift phone book podium, singing the Australian national anthem at the top of her lungs. All she wanted to do was run.
Julius Achon’s childhood was spent in the village of Awake in rural Northern Uganda, carrying water for miles for his family. At age 12, Julius was abducted by Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army and forced to be a child soldier. During his captivity, he endured the trauma of both witnessing and being forced to carry out violent acts, living in a daily environment of atrocities. After three months, Julius had the opportunity to run for his life. A government plane flew over the rebel army, dropping bombs. Nine of the boys survived, while six – including Julius – were able to escape. He ran for his life, making the 300km trek back to his northern village of Awake, miraculously returning home to his family.
These are two of the three founders of Love Mercy.
Eloise’s early running dreams began to promise fulfilment as she rose to her potential in her teen years; excelling in both junior and senior level middle distance races at fourteen. At just sixteen years old, she qualified easily for the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney. The path that appeared to gleam with opportunity however, later proved to spiral into a long road of challenges.
Battling an eating disorder and a devastating series of career-threatening stress fractures, Eloise was forced to give up her dream of competing at the 2000, 2004 and 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. Her third Olympics injured and nine stress fractures into the journey, Eloise had all but given up on her dream. Her family and coach encouraged her to keep moving forward; and she boarded a plane to Portland, to take part in a Nike corporate running campus.
It was here that a conversation between Eloise and Julius would change the course of both their lives – and thousands of others. Eloise struck up a conversation with Julius, a pacer for the group. Although it may have seemed an unlikely friendship, the two quickly formed a bond tied by their faith. What Eloise discovered about Julius was a story of strength that made her feelings of failure seem miniscule.
Julius’ story profoundly impacted Eloise, and drew her into an entirely new path that created fresh purpose in the midst of her difficult running career. In January 2009, Eloise made the long trip to Uganda to see firsthand the impact of civil war on the Ugandan community. She was also introduced to Julius’s family and the 11 orphans he was independently supporting. Deeply challenged by what she had witnessed, she knew she had met Julius a reason and began to take action by inviting friends, family and connections in Australia to help restore her new friend’s community through financial support.
A month after Eloise’s first trip to Uganda Eloise met Caitlin Barrett. On meeting, Eloise shared the story of Julius with Caitlin – a student studying international development at the University of New South Wales – of the poverty of Northern Uganda and of her vision to help restore the community. Naturally, this ignited great curiosity in Caitlin, who was volunteering for a charity in Uganda at the time. This was the second connection that was meant to be.
In February 2010, after months of in depth discussions and plans made between the two women, a board had been established and Love Mercy started officially as a charity, with Eloise as founder and Caitlin as CEO.
Eight years on, the non-for-profit is well on its way to empowering 20,000 women by 2020 through their Cents for Seeds program, with 13,800 women set to receive loans in 2018. A newly opened hospital, The Kristina Health Care Centre, has given hope to the thousands of men. women and children who would have otherwise been left devoid of access to adequate health care.