October 8, 2009


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She is literally saving lives
Thug robs Hiller of $3,500 she had raised for school in Africa

Bududa, Uganda,
 where Barbara now lives, is on the slopes of the 16,000-foot Mt. Elgon, (above photo) on the border between Kenya and
Uganda. It is the third highest free-standing mountain in East Africa. (Kilimanjaro is the highest, and next is Mt. Kenya.) It is the oldest of all three, being over 20 million years old. (You can tell it’s older because its face has more wrinkles.)

If I were allowed to nominate one person from Chestnut Hill for sainthood, it would be Barbara Birks Wybar. (She will be very upset when she sees that sentence because she is so modest and unassuming.)

Barbara, 63, grew up in Montreal. She graduated from McGill University with a major in art history and psychology. She never worked in either field, but she insists that she has used some of what she learned in psychology courses in her teaching career. She taught third grade for two years in London, England, but left in 1987 to come to Philadelphia, where her then-husband, Michael, was in the insurance business. They moved to Mt. Airy, where she lived until 1999, and she then moved to Rex Avenue in Chestnut Hill. (Michael left in 1993, although the couple had four teenagers at the time.) Barbara was a teaching assistant at Germantown Friends School and then taught second grade at Chestnut Hill Academy for 10 years.

But two years ago, Barbara left her big, comfortable house on Rex Avenue and since then has been living in a village called Bududa in Uganda, East Africa, where she has no electricity, running water or any other 21st century conveniences that the rest of us consider second-nature. In Bududa Barbara has been the driving force behind the building, staffing and operation of the Bududa Vocational Institute, a school that now turns out graduates who can earn a living — something that was barely possible before when the village had no school. She also raises funds to feed starving AIDS orphans.

Every so often, Barbara, who receives no salary in Uganda, returns to Chestnut Hill to visit friends and family and to raise funds for her school and the AIDS orphans. She also tries to visit Canada because she has relatives in both Montreal and Toronto. So she went to both Montreal and Toronto last month to raise funds for her school in Uganda and to visit relatives whom she had not seen for quite some time. (Both of Barbara’s parents had big families whose ancestors had been in Montreal since the War of 1812.)

But after finishing a speaking and fundraising tour on the Gaspe Peninsula near Montreal, Barbara changed $3,700 Canadian dollars into U.S. dollars, all of it earmarked for Bududa, at a Globex foreign exchange bureau. After leaving the office, however, a knife-wielding thug attacked Barbara from behind and stole her bag. He also slashed one of the rear tires on her rented car so she could not get away.

A bystander observed the theft and began to yell, but it was too late. The thief bolted into the open door of a blue minivan, which sped off. Wybar and the bystander, Benjamin Highfield, called Montreal police. An officer arrived moments later and took a report.

As it turned out, the lowlife who robbed her had been pacing outside of the foreign exchange bureau, where people are likely to be walking out with serious money. It is known that he was pacing outside because of the security cameras that captured his movements. Barbara had been in the building for about 25 minutes.

“I was an older woman by myself, and I guess I’m not very savvy,” said Barbara. “The funny thing is that I travel in Africa all the time and have never had a problem. In fact, if something like this had happened in Africa, I’d scream, and all the men in the area would chase the thief. When they would catch him, he might be murdered. That’s why this would not happen there.

“In fact, every month I carry $1,500 in teachers’ salaries on a crowded minibus from Mbale, Uganda, to our vocational institute. I’ve taken that trip 18 times, with 25 people jammed into the bus, and had no problems. Nothing’s ever happened to me in Africa, even though many Africans think that it’s dangerous for me to carry that money on the bus.”

Ironically, Barbara was robbed just a few blocks from the private girls’ school she attended as a child, later taught at and which recently bestowed on her an alumna achievement award, citing her as a “natural caregiver.”

Besides the money she had raised for the school and the AIDS orphans, the  lowlife also made off with $200 of Wybar’s personal cash, her medical records, driver’s license, Canadian and U.S. passports, birth certificate, credit and debit cards, address book and a list of people she owed thank-you notes to.

After the traumatic crime, Barbara’s story was reported in the Montreal Gazette, after which her depression was lessened somewhat by the generous response by some readers of the newspaper. When I spoke to Barbara two weeks ago, she had already received $1,500 in checks from readers of the Gazette who had read her story and wanted to help. One woman sent a check for $1,000, and another man said he would make up the difference between the amount she received from other Good Samaritans and $3,500. (The total stolen was $3,700, but as indicated before, $200 of it was Barbara’s own money.) That gentleman, Elio Vettese, wrote: “I am simply someone who read the story and felt for the people who will suffer from this. I realize that I am lucky to be where I am and to have what I have, and when I can help, I try.”

“The reaction has been overwhelming,” said Barbara. “When I was robbed, I figured I’d have to take the $3,500 out of my savings to make up for what was stolen. My mother said, ‘Just be grateful you were not hurt. It’s only money.’ I cancelled both my Canadian and U.S. passports. I couldn’t go home to Philly right away because I had no I.D., which was in the stolen bag along with my driver’s license, birth certificate, credit cards and all the rest.” Wybar was finally able to get back to Philly after she was issued a temporary passport, and she borrowed $450 from an old friend.

Barbara came back to Chestnut Hill from Africa on July 28, and she left to go back to Uganda on Sept. 26. Her school, which has 12 staff and faculty members, has had as many as 60 students. They recently graduated 13 people who will be nursery school teachers, and they also have classes in introduction to computers, bricklaying, carpentry and tailoring. The teachers, who are local people, all have diplomas, and they are relatively well paid once a month. “They always get paid,” said Barbara, “which is significant because in Africa public employees do not always get paid.”

Wybar’s title is Coordinator of the school, some of whose students live on the premises. “I expect the school to run the way schools do here, which we often take for granted,” she said. “In other words, if school is supposed to start at 8 o’clock, then it has to start at 8 o’clock. But that’s not always the way things work in Africa. There is a good reason why they don’t. For example, some kids have to walk two hours each way barefoot to get to and from school, so they have to start walking at 6 a.m. Also, many do not have watches, so I do give them some leeway, but I do not allow faculty members to be late.”

Although Wybar takes no salary, her food and accommodations are paid by the school. The school’s students and teachers built a guest house for her to live in. It has six rooms and can hold up to 16 people in a tight squeeze. That is where volunteers from the West stay, and there have been quite a few. One was Paul Hogan, a New Jersey lawyer who is the older brother of Susan Willson, a resident of Rex Avenue. “He and his wife were there for five weeks with no running water or electricity, and they worked like dogs,” said Wybar.

Barbara lived with peasants on a hillside before the guest house was built. Her school does have solar panels, but none of the living quarters in Bududa have electricity or running water. The town is right on the equator, so it never gets cold. “The coldest it gets is about 60 degrees,” she said, “which the people there think is really cold.” Barbara pays her own airfare to and from Africa, although her Quaker Meeting, Germantown Friends, will sometimes pay half of her two-way fare. How long does she plan to stay in Africa?

“Well,” she replied, “I love my kids, who are now in their 30s, but as long as my kids say it’s OK and as long as I’m succeeding, I’ll stay in Africa.”

Anyone who wishes to contact Barbara or send a contribution to her work can do so at: Barbara Wybar, P.O.Box 1918, Mbale, Uganda. She can also be reached at 001-256-773923376 or