The information in the e-mail was so surreal, Scott Harty first thought it was fake. The message, sent from a friend he’d met doing community work in Atlanta, talked about thousands of Ugandan children being wrongfully imprisoned. The Brookhaven resident admits he “couldn’t point to Uganda on a map,” but he booked a trip there to check it out.
“We were blown away,” said Harty, 41. “ We saw nursing infants and teenagers - the full gamut. The sad thing is most of the kids should not be in the system at all. Most of them had not committed a crime but were abandoned, neglected and at risk. I witnessed a parent bring a child who was unruly to one of these facilities and leave him there. And some have been in prison longer than if they’d been convicted and serve a sentence. Our hearts were broken for it.”
Harty, an attorney for the midtown firm Smith, Gambrell and Russell, was driven to get involved. He joined members from his Village Church in Vinings to found Sixty Feet, a nonprofit dedicated to freeing the Ugandan children. Since its inception last year, the mission has moved into other African countries as well.
“These types of prisons are abundant,” he said. “We only knew about one of these prisons in 2010, but we’ve since found another five. There’s no system in place to handle these kids. And you can imagine what the conditions are like - they’re deplorable.”
Harty has made the trek to Africa seven times, and other volunteers have traveled there more than 20 times to fix bathrooms, set up waters systems and deliver food and medical supplies. There are now 12 Sixty Feet representatives on-site working for the children.
“We’re nurturing relationships with the government,” said Harty. “They’re highly receptive, but it’s a delicate balance. We want to help but not do things the government should be doing.
We can put some children in sponsorship programs, so they go to school or get vocational training. If we can resettle them into their homes or villages, we do. That’s our primary goal, but it’s tough.”
At home, Harty works to spread the word about Sixty Feet and to raise funds to its mission. He’s won the support of his four young daughters who, last year, started selling cupcakesto help the cause.
“They raised $250, and we matched it,” said Harty. “Then somebody else heard about it, and soon there were five cupcake sales going on that raised $15,000. It caught on through social media and became a national Cupcake Kid sale with more than 100 locations around the country. This year we raised $75,000 with 140 sales going on in 35 states.”
Sixty Feet has drawn so much support, in fact, that earlier this year, one of Harty’s co-founders quit his job as a software developer to work for the mission full-time. Harty himself spends time visiting churches and civic groups to talk about the mission and to show a film the group has made about the plight of the Ugandan children.
“There is so much we can do,” he said. “And being an attorney, I really love the justice component of it.”
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