By Jeff Dodge | Photograph by Brian Buss

Robert Serunjogi is so joyful and outgoing a “hello” for everyone he meets while pedaling his bicycle across campus that he often draws others into conversation. And that’s exactly what happened when he met Laura Schreck in Spring 2015 in the Engineering Building, where he was working as a custodian and she was waiting for a ride after classes.

Schreck, then an undergraduate in health and exercise science, was struck not only by Serunjogi’s buoyancy, but by what he’d overcome: He had grown up in a village north of Kampala, Uganda, where many of his friends and family were killed by rebel fighters during a civil war that began in the 1980s. Serunjogi had escaped death but suffered the debilitating effects of childhood polio. He had immigrated to the United States and made his way to Fort Collins with his American wife, whom he met through an international relief organization and later lost to cancer. Still, Serunjogi had earned a GED, followed by a degree in political science from Colorado State. For years, he had worked two janitorial jobs with the goal of raising money to build a school and orphanage for children in his home village.

“There’s a reason God saved my life,” Serunjogi has explained of his efforts.

Just before she met her friend, Schreck had decided to temporarily curb her cellphone use to absorb more of the world around her. Now, hearing Serunjogi’s astounding story, “I just couldn’t say, ‘Well, that’s too bad. See you later,’” Schreck recalled in an interview with The Denver Post. “I had to do something.”

She offered to help with fundraising through the crowdfunding platform GoFundMe and soon became a partner in Serunjogi’s project, assisting with planning, communication, and administrative tasks.

In the four years since they met, Schreck and Serunjogi have raised nearly $70,000 to build a small campus of three school buildings in the village of Luweero, north of Lake Victoria. They call it “Robert’s Orphanage” because the site offers both classes and shelter for children, many of whom have been orphaned by civil war, AIDS, and other tragedies.

“Having an education gives you the power to be independent. I want that for the children of my village,” Serunjogi said. “For me, education is very important because if everyone had access to education, the world would be safer.”

In July, Serunjogi and Schreck, accompanied by six volunteers and CSU employees, visited the village in Uganda to see the campus they helped build and to deliver a science curriculum, teacher training, and classroom supplies with the Little Shop of Physics, the University’s well-known science outreach program.

They were excited to visit the school, where 180 children ages 4 to 14 come to learn each day, often from miles away. The campus further functions as a health clinic, where villagers gather for vaccinations and other medical needs.

Serunjogi, 49, credited Schreck for bringing energy and focus to his longtime project. “If it wasn’t for her, I couldn’t accomplish what I’m doing. I call her my hero,” said Serunjogi, who also expressed gratitude to project donors.

Schreck, 25, has also been inspired: In the time she has helped with Robert’s Orphanage, she has completed her bachelor’s degree; in May, she earned a master’s degree in health and exercise science and now plans to attend medical school.

Best of all, their project continues.

“I say ‘Hi’ to a lot of strangers, and this time it paid off in a big way. I got that from my grandmother,” Serunjogi said of his fateful alliance with Schreck. “My grandmother would say that if you don’t say ‘How are you?’ how are you going to make friends?”