Children have always been close to Nicole Greenberg's heart.
The 20-year-old has worked with children in one way or another most of her life: as a babysitter, then a camp counselor and now as a developmental psychology major at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon.
But it wasn't until she caught a glimpse of the plight and peril of children in war-torn Northern Uganda that she found a cause - and her calling.
Last fall during her sophomore year, Greenberg saw the film Invisible Children, a documentary about children from Northern Uganda's Acholi ethnic group forced to become child soldiers for the rebel Lord's Resistance Army. More than 20,000 children have been abducted since 1987, and brutal violence has displaced at least 1.6 million people within Northern Uganda.
"That issue triggered everything for me," Greenberg, now a college junior, recollected. "There wasn't a single person in the room who wasn't crying at the end of the film."
Greenberg took action immediately. And, one year later, her enthusiasm has inspired fellow students, rallied more than 1,000 people and taken her to the nation's halls of power.
From a keyboard to the bricks
Right after she saw the film, Greenberg sat down at her computer and searched for details about the crisis on Google.
"I didn't find much on the Web; people just weren't talking about it," she said.
And that made her determined to bring the issue to public attention.
One of the first places she contacted was her high school in Santa Monica, California. Soon afterward, the school bought and showed Invisible Children, incorporated the Northern Uganda crisis into its curriculum in grades 8-12 and held several fundraisers.
She also began talking about the situation with like-minded fellow students at Lewis & Clark. Within weeks, that group of students had reached out to their colleagues at George Fox University and Pacific University, two nearby schools in suburban Portland. Soon, what started as one woman's driving interest became a community movement.
It continued growing. In April 2006, Greenberg helped organize Portland's Global Night Commute, part of a worldwide event initiated by the Invisible Children team. Thousands of people across the world spent the night in city parks to show solidarity with the Acholi children who commute into larger towns every night to escape the clutches of the Lord's Resistance Army.
Portland's Global Night Commute was one of the nation's largest, drawing more than 1,000 people to Portland's Pioneer Square. It was one of the nation's largest. Greenberg brought a contingent of 45 Lewis & Clark students, who slept alongside the others on cold bricks in 40-degree weather. Earlier, they'd collected signatures as part of a nationwide letter-writing campaign to educate legislators about the crisis in Northern Uganda.
It was a pivotal and powerful event that set the stage for a longer journey, all the way across the country.
Ms. Greenberg goes to Washington
In early October, Greenberg traveled to Washington, D.C. for the Northern Uganda Lobby Day and Symposium. The event, which Mercy Corps co-sponsored, brought together dozens of diplomats, academics and humanitarian aid workers, as well as distinguished Acholi leaders from Northern Uganda for two days of workshops, panels and other activities.
Those two days deepened Greenberg's knowledge of the crisis - as well as her appreciation of the Acholi peoples' strength - and tempered her resolve to get the word out.
"I really wasn't aware about the situation in the [displacement] camps. Lobby Day showed me the enormity of the situation: at least 80 percent of families across Northern Uganda are displaced," Greenberg explained. "Imagine if a city or a whole region of the United States had 80 percent of its people displaced. That's how I try to present it to my friends."
Greenberg also prepared for the next stage of her effort to inform people about the crisis.
"We have to educate our officials about what we need them to do for the people of Northern Uganda. First, they need to recognize that it has been - and still is - a major conflict," Greenberg spelled out. "The time to support the peace process is now - the United States has to do its part to support and strengthen the process.
"Then, when the peace takes hold, we must commit to the kind of development and humanitarian need that Ugandan families need. There can't be one without the other."
Next steps on the journey
Sipping on a coffee at a shop overlooking Pioneer Square - the site of the Global Night Commute six months ago - Greenberg has confidence in her eyes as she considers the future.
"I've talked with my [psychology department] advisor, and I'm planning on doing my senior thesis on abducted children in Northern Uganda and the relief activities that are helping them," Greenberg said. "It'll be a comparative study between affected children in Northern Uganda and children displaced by Hurricane Katrina here in the United States."
Clearly, Northern Uganda is in her future - she plans to travel there at her earliest opportunity. And the road doesn't stop there.
"We have to stay connected to each other and stay active," Greenberg emphasizes. "We can affect the situation. We have enough people involved to make our officials aware of it. We just have to keep learning and, most importantly, stay focused."