When many people reach middle age they start to think about winding their life back a notch to spend time with their children and grandchildren. Irene Gleeson did the opposite. This gutsy grandmother sold her beachside home and possessions, farewelled her family and relocated to one of the most dangerous places on earth.
I had the privilege of meeting Irene more than a decade ago. At the time she was in the midst of having treatment for multiple skin cancers. Living in Africa for many years had taken its toll on her fair complexion. But Irene was no stranger to challenges, and she took this latest one in her stride. This was no time for self-pity; her thoughts were on her life-changing work helping orphaned and destitute children in northern Uganda.
Even though I only spent a short time with Irene, her story made a lasting impression. She spoke with such passion about her work in Africa I could not help but be incredibly moved. Small in stature but with the biggest of hearts, what Irene achieved in the face of insurmountable odds was extraordinary.
Fighting The Odds
Indeed the odds were stacked against Irene from the very beginning. Her childhood was filled with tragedy and heartbreak.1 Irene’s father, an American sailor, took off as soon as he found out that Irene’s mother was pregnant. Her mother struggled with mental health issues and was married twice. Irene’s first stepfather was an alcoholic and a womaniser. Her second stepfather sexually abused her.
Irene’s mother passed away when she was just 15 years old, leaving her to care for her seven siblings. After her mother’s death Irene was then faced with the vile plans of her stepfather who wanted to take her as his new wife. Terrified, she moved out of the family home to a nearby girls’ hostel. During this time she met Brian, who would soon become her husband. By the time she was 21 she was married with three children.
Not surprisingly, the trauma that Irene suffered as a child left her deeply troubled and unsettled. She began a desperate search for truth, including exploring Buddhism and transcendental meditation, but she didn’t find the answers she was looking for.
Irene spiralled into depression. Her marriage fell apart and her only therapy was to take long walks on the beach. It was during one of these twilight walks that she glanced up at a brightly lit surf club where a church service was being held. She took a closer look but did not go inside. A few weeks later she worked up the courage to enter the church, which was now meeting in a converted warehouse nearby. Immediately she felt an incredible sense of peace. Years of pain and turmoil were instantly lifted from her shoulders. At that moment she gave her heart to Jesus and became a Christian.
Life In Uganda
A few years later Irene’s life took another extraordinary twist. After hearing about orphans in Uganda needing help, she sold her home and all her possessions, left behind her comfortable life and family, and at the age of 47 headed for one of the most dangerous places in the world. Kitgum, about 50 kilometres from the Sudanese border, was the toughest, most neglected and isolated part of Uganda, having been ravaged by civil war for decades. It had also been heavily impacted by the HIV/AIDS virus. Many children had been orphaned or kidnapped and forced to become sex slaves or child soldiers.
Arriving in Kitgum in 1991, Irene immediately discovered the hardships of living in the region.
There was no electricity or running water and food was scarce. But she immediately set to work bringing love and hope to the orphaned and destitute children, who affectionately called her “Mama Irene”. Under the shade of a mango tree, she began teaching them how to sing, eventually adding reading and writing to her lessons. She taught the children English by writing in the dust on the ground.
Over time Irene was given land by the local council to build an orphanage, but she faced some extreme challenges, including being the target of rebel attacks where men broke into her caravan, wielding rifles and bayonets, and threatened her life. Each time she would claim God’s protection and was delivered from what appeared to be certain death.
Irene’s body also did not cope well with the oppressive heat and harsh physical conditions. She experienced leg ulcers, malaria, typhoid and dysentery. She dearly missed her children and grandchildren back in Australia and struggled with the isolation. But despite her own pain and discomfort, she never gave up. She earnestly believed that this was God’s destiny for her.
Leaving a Legacy
Irene spent 22 years in Kitgum and during this time she helped more than 20,000 traumatised children receive free education, food and medical care. Her remarkable legacy includes five primary schools catering for more than 8000 children daily; a 60-bed HIV hospice; water, sanitation and hygiene programs; and a vocational college providing training in carpentry, building and other skills.
In 2009, Irene’s extraordinary work was recognised by the Australian government when she was appointed an Officer of the Order of Australia. She was also recognised by the government of Uganda.
Dubbed Australia’s Mother Teresa, Irene still had many plans for the work in Kitgum when she sadly lost her year-long battle with cancer in 2013. Her memorial service in Uganda was attended by 10,000 people. Among those who sent tributes was the then Australian foreign minister Bob Carr. He wrote: “Her life chartered an inspirational path from Sydney to Kitgum. Mama Irene demonstrates the difference that one dedicated and courageous human being can make in the lives of many others. She leaves an enduring and remarkable legacy, not only helping thousands of children who attended the schools she established, but their families and wider communities.”
Her Vision Lives On
Towards the end of her life, Irene affirmed that it was her relationship with God that kept her going through the hard times.
“Would I do it all again? Definitely yes,” she said. “The sacrifices have been worth it. The best thing is my walk with the Lord is very close . . . That’s what I have learnt. If you want to be close to Jesus, you want to be in His presence all the time, well go where the least of His brothers are and get in amongst them and you’ll be walking hand in hand with Him. That’s been the best thing of my life.”3
While Irene is dearly missed, the good news is that this is not the end of the story as her vision lives on. Some of the orphans she raised and mentored are now leading the work in Kitgum with the support of the Irene Gleeson Foundation.
1. Details of Irene’s life story were sourced from Heart of a Lioness by Irene Glesson with Nicole Partridge. 2014. Authentic Publishers.
Tracey Bridcutt is head of news and editorial at Adventist Media. She met Irene while working as a senior journalist for Newslocal, a subsidiary of News Corporation.