Interview with Julius Achon of Portland, Ugandan Olympian – Part 3

Read our entire interview with Julius Achon: Part 1Part 2

Achon with one of the orphans. Credit Stephanie Musho, AUCF

Achon with one of the orphans. Credit Stephanie Musho, AUCF

After the 1996 Olympic Games, Julius Achon continued his collegiate running career at George Mason University. Upon graduation, Achon finally was able to return to Uganda and search for his family again. Four years after last talking with his parents, he arrived in Kampala, Uganda’s capitol, and boarded a bus to Northern Uganda; unsure if they would still be living in the same village or even still be alive.

Achon boarded the 2nd bus leaving from Kampala to Lira on the day he arrived in Uganda and settled in for the 200+ mile ride. On the road, the bus that had left just before his was bombed, killing all 75 passengers.

He arrived safely back in his village, finding his parents still alive and ecstatic to see him. For three days Achon greeted and talked with family friends and people from his village who were proud of him for his running success and earning a college degree. After the short visit, he headed back to the US and resumed training for the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney.

During these years living in the United States, Achon didn’t talk about the violence in his home country. His uncle was killed. An aunt was killed, along with her seven grandchildren. And more and more young boys were being kidnapped and forced to fight for the Lord’s Resistance Army.

Despite dealing with these memories and wondering how he could help the people from his village, Achon continued to run well, earning a trip to the semifinals of the 1500 at the 2000 Olympics with a 3:39.4 in the first round and running 3:40.32 in the semifinals. He trained on his own, living off the winnings from his track career.

The most recent chapter in his life opened in October of 2003, when Achon was back in Uganda. Out for a run, he saw 11 bodies under a bus. Having grown up in a war zone, he thought they might have been shot; but he came to see that they were, in fact, 11 sleeping children. He stopped and talked to them, learning that all of their parents had been killed. The only way he knew how to respond was to help – he walked the mile back to his parent’s home with all 11 children and began providing for them: food, a place to live and sleep, and tuition to attend school. Achon returned to the United States, this time coming to Portland, Ore., where he arrived on his birthday, December 12th, and started training with Alberto Salazar and preparing for the 2004 Olympics. (He did not compete, due in part to his mother’s death.)

Living with other elite runners, Achon was able to divide his income between putting money away for himself and his future wife and by sending money to Uganda. His brother, Jimmy, managed the money for him and stretched it as far as he could to help out the 11 orphans. Achon was beginning to see how he could make a difference for the people of his home village.

In May 2004, Achon’s mother was shot by the LRA; there was no money to get her to a hospital, and she bled to death four days later. For Achon’s 11 orphans, it was like losing another mother; but the rest of his family were committed to caring for them. While telling me about his mother’s death, it was clear that her influence would continue to help Achon as he created change for the Lira District. Throughout the interview, he talked about helping people back home, about giving as much as you can, and how he realized that he could influence others to make a difference.

This influence has done much more than he originally imagined. Part of what made it happen was getting to know Australian runner Eloise Wellings. Wellings, who was dealing with injuries in 2008 when she met Achon, was like many runners who aren’t sure when they’ll be back to racing shape – unhappy. When she heard Achon’s story, her reaction was basically to realize that there were much larger problems in the world than her injuries. She both shocked Achon and made him realize that others might want to help him improve life in his village when she gave him $100.

A hut in Awake, Uganda, like the one Achon's family lived in. Credit: Stephanie Musho, AUCF

A hut in Awake, Uganda, like the one Achon’s family lived in. Credit: Stephanie Musho, AUCF

Wellings wanted to visit the Lira District, but Achon felt embarrassed to let her see the village where he grew up. She ignored his protests, and along with her husband and their parents, attended his wedding in Uganda in 2009. Wellings’ involvement planted the seed that has become the Achon Ugandan Children’s Fund, providing scholarships for orphans in Uganda.

Another key person who has given more than Achon thought possible is Portland resident Jim Fee. Fee, who is retired from a career as an executive in the medical products industry, met Achon, and upon hearing his story, wanted to help. He offered to give Achon money to go back to Uganda; but Achon, after seeing how a visit impacted Wellings, encouraged Fee to visit his home country for himself. The visit changed Fee’s life. When he learned that women still die in childbirth on a regular basis in Northern Uganda, Fee made a donation for a clinic and became the volunteer assistant director of the Achon Ugandan Children’s Fund. (Achon has raised nearly 55% of funds needed to build and staff the clinic and is working hard to raise the remainder.)

As of now, Achon has a lot to be proud of. There’s his experience as a two-time Olympian and being selected twice to be the team captain for the Ugandan delegation. He’s married to a woman who works as a CNA at a nursing home for retired nuns; his whole face lights up when he talks about her. And he’s making a real difference in the lives of the people from his home village in Uganda’s Lira Province.

Those 11 sleeping children have grown up; one is now a seamstress, another girl is a nurse, and one boy who is only 18 is currently the top Ugandan runner in the 400 and the 800. Achon’s brother Jimmy, who manages operations for the Achon Uganda Children’s Fund in Uganda, finds a way to stretch the donations Achon secures; he can feed 25 people daily for a full month with only $1500 and makes sure the school-age orphans receive an education.

Achon, who has worked with Alberto Salazar and his training group, currently works at the Nike Employee Store, and getting help for the Achon Ugandan Children’s Fund from other elites living in Oregon: Chris Solinsky and his wife are sponsoring two orphans, bringing the number of children that the AUCF is currently helping to 35. He speaks about his experience at area schools and events, where students and adults alike make donations that add up quickly.

Here is how you can help:


A drawing of the Kristina Acuma Achon Clinic, which was completed in 2012. Drawing by Franco Amot of Lira, Uganda.

When this was originally published in March 2011, the immediate goal was to raise enough money to finish building the medical clinic which, will was named after Julius’s mother, Kristina Acuma Achon. Thanks to people like Fee, Wellings, the rest of the AUCF board members, and those who have made a donation, the clinic is a reality and AUCF is now raising funds to add staff and staff housing.

Here’s just one reason why: In November 2010, when Julius was in Uganda for two months, 10 women in the village (and their babies) died in child birth. Now that Awake has a clinic, the risk of death from childbirth has plummeted.

You can donate directly to the Achon Ugandan Children’s Fund online or send a check to them:

Achon Ugandan Children’s Fund
PO Box 91639
Portland, OR 97219

Also, you can ask those you know to support this cause. Ask your friends, family, co-workers – just send them this link so they can read the whole story and get inspired. If you have connections with area Rotary Clubs, Chambers of Commerce, or other organizations that would be interested in hearing Julius’ story, you can contact him through the AUCF website .

Finally, you can always accompany Julius on a visit to Northern Uganda to fully appreciate the need for your support and how far your contributions can go. It’s an open invitation that will never expire!

About Author

We started the Run Oregon blog in February 2007, because felt like running in Oregon and SW Washington deserved more positive coverage. We also wanted to level the playing field so that small, non-profit races could compete with big events; and to support local race organizers.

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