Courtesy Huruma
A student receives physical therapy at Huruma School, founded by an Oregon Catholic in 2004. The name means “compassion.”

Courtesy Huruma

A student receives physical therapy at Huruma School, founded by an Oregon Catholic in 2004. The name means “compassion.”

A school for disabled youngsters in East Africa is working to sustain and improve its singular services. Huruma School for Children with Disabilities in Mwanza, Tanzania, has garnered support from Catholics in Portland since its founding in 2004. 

Bertha Haas, a retired educator and member of St. Alexander Parish in Cornelius, traveled to Tanzania in 2003 as part of her work as a Maryknoll lay missioner. She observed that local children who had disabilities or serious health problems did not do well in public schools. Haas, 75, collaborated with parents to establish an alternative providing intensive support for such children. The name, “Huruma,” is Swahili for “compassion.”  

“The government and people generally have taken the attitude that children with disabilities are uneducable,” says Haas, who served at Huruma until 2011. “We take any child who has been denied admittance.” 

Huruma accepts them all: cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy, intellectual disabilities, deafness, speech impediments, autism. Enoch — a student with cerebral palsy — says he loves Huruma because the other children are not afraid of him and don’t run away. 

Haas knows children with disabilities can learn and gain practical skills — with a supportive environment and the right teaching methods. Some students have made gains that allow them to be admitted to their local public schools. Others have learned skills that help them support themselves and their families.

Andrew Jacob, current Huruma director, reports that by the close of 2016 there were 65 students, a substantial increase from previous years. Finding enough staff is a challenge. 

Personnel is not the only problem. The school lacks things like wheelchairs, which would allow more physically disabled students to attend. A preschool program has sputtered for lack of funding. 

“That’s sad, because preschool is when you can make a difference,” Haas says. Disabled children can advance in language and mobility best if they are served early, she explains. Also lost because of a lack of funds are a language therapist and a home visiting program. 

“We were so touched when we visited Huruma and sang and played with the children,” says Mary Ryan Hotchkiss, a member of a committee that raises support for the school. “Bertha has done a great thing in helping the Tanzanians educate and acknowledge the possibilities for their children with disabilities.”

Haas has reached out to Portland Catholics to help pay staff salaries and school facility improvements. Fundraising includes the annual Taste of Tanzania, which includes African food, crafts and entertainers. It’s set this year for Saturday, April 8, at Spirit of Grace/Mission of the Atonement in Beaverton. For more information, go to and search for “Huruma.”

For more information and to help, go here.