A moment of inspiration drove RCMP Cst. Kirsten Link to spearhead a fundraising mission to build a police station halfway around the world in Uganda earlier this year.
"I wanted to do a little more in my life," says Link, who currently works in the Serious and Organized Crime unit in Newmarket, Ont. "I've always enjoyed doing charity work within Canada and was looking for an opportunity to do some humanitarian work abroad."
Link had attended fundraising events run by one of the RCMP's Health Services physicians, Dr. Linda Douville, and contacted her in 2016 asking how she could help. She never imagined she'd end up in Uganda just over a year later.
A police project
Shortly after reaching out to Douville, Link connected with a man named Don McLaughlin, a retired Toronto police officer who now runs High Adventure Charities. The veteran cop worked for the Toronto Police Service for 29 years before retiring in 2000, when he took over managing the charity.
High Adventure raises money for a variety of community-based projects in Africa. They take on everything from building radio broadcasting stations to humanitarian projects, such as building a health centre in Ongutoi, Uganda.
Since his first trip to Uganda, McLaughlin has been acutely aware of the lack of resources and services for local police. He's kept an eye out for police-related projects his charity could take on, and the new health centre provided the first opportunity.
After the centre was built, the Ugandan government assigned two police officers to watch over the area and protect the facility from vandalism and theft, since it contained valuable medication and expensive equipment. But there was no police post for the officers to work in.
"Two things will re-grow a community there — one is health and the other is policing," says McLaughlin. "I knew in order to achieve long-term stability, we needed to have a police station."
When Link told McLaughlin she was an RCMP officer looking to do some charity work, he had just the project for her to lead. He asked her to spearhead the $15,000 fundraising project to build a police station in Ongutoi for the police officers protecting the health centre and surrounding community.
"In Canada, inside the police station is your haven. But in Uganda, you're out in the bush and there's no safe space," says McLaughlin. "We wanted to provide a secure environment for the police."
Through a golf tournament and several generous donations, Link was able to raise enough money for the police post in just a few months. Before she knew it, she was planning her trip to Uganda alongside Douville, McLaughlin and several other active and retired police officers from the RCMP, Toronto Police Service and York Regional Police.
A group of 14 volunteers made the trek to Ongutoi in the spring of 2017 to volunteer at the health centre and help build the police station.
"It's more than just swinging a hammer," says Douville. "For me, there's a connection with the nurses and doctors — we speak the same language. For the police officers, there was that same sense of camaraderie. They were helping build the police station, but it was also about sharing their trade and skills."
Douville and McLaughlin both agree that having a police officer like Link lead the project added a level of credibility and respect that wouldn't have been possible otherwise.
"There was unanimity of attitude and spirit," says McLaughlin. "We all work under different agencies but there's the underlying 'serve and protect' mentality. We have so much in common."
The police station is now fully operational, with offices, cells, solar panels and a sustainable water source. McLaughlin says the station has helped create a permanent, visible police presence, which sends a message to everyone that they're safe.
"Being a police officer is near and dear to me, so doing something for other police officers is incredibly rewarding," says Link, who hopes to go back to Uganda one day. "To be able to help the Ugandan officers be better at their jobs by providing them with a police station is wonderful. You come back feeling like you've gained more than you've given."