Two Transformational Leadership Alumnae Develop Nonprofit to Support Women in Uganda

February 13, 2017

When you attend the School of Theology and Ministry you choose to earn more than just a degree—it becomes fulfillment within your community, the confidence to break through barriers and the ability to step out and make a change. Sister Maria Gorreth Nassali and Cindy Pickreign are two Transformational Leadership alumnae who are making that change, and have founded Empower Your Neighbor, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, whose mission is to reduce the amount of domestic violence against women and children in Southern Uganda. This organization seeks to empower Ugandan women to become more economically independent, promote girls' education and reduce the number of Ugandan families living in abject poverty. Sr. Maria and Cindy have dedicated their time and many resources to help accomplish their goal of finding and using sustainable solutions. Here’s a look into their inspirational story.

Sr. Maria was born and raised in Byerima Village, in the Rakai district in Southern Uganda. At Seattle University, she earned a Bachelor of Science in Mathematics, a Master of Arts in Transformational Leadership from the School of Theology and Ministry and is currently working on her Doctorate in Educational Leadership. Sr. Maria chose to purse the Master of Arts in Transformational Leadership degree because she was “interested in learning about becoming a leader.” She notes, “the classes were very practical. [The professors] listened to us, gave us the opportunity to express our feelings and made us accountable for what we are doing.”

Cindy has worked for more than 25 years in corporate IT as a software engineer, project manager and analyst. She earned a Bachelor of Science and Master of Science in Computer Science from Western Washington University and a Master of Arts in Transformational Leadership from the School of Theology and Ministry. For Cindy, pursuing the Transformational Leadership degree was a “personal transformation.”

Sr. Maria and Cindy met at the Seattle University School of Theology and Ministry orientation and bonded over their math and technology background. During their time in the Transformational Leadership program, Sr. Maria and Cindy took classes together and learned more about each other’s story. Cindy remembers “Sr. Maria did a presentation on domestic violence in Uganda and that really stuck with me.” From there, they began to work together on a plan to help the women in Uganda. They started with addressing the need of finding self-sustaining ways to get Internet access to the Daughters of Mary convent (Sr. Maria’s community in Uganda) and the five surrounding schools. Cindy recalls asking Sr. Maria what would be sustainable in that area and she said, "pigs." Sr. Maria explained, “if we built pig sties and gave the sisters pigs, that would help them generate some income to keep the internet going.” Cindy added, “we wanted to give them a sustainable business…and you need capitol in order to send your kids to school and buy medical supplies.” The pigs became a source of capital for the Ugandan families and allowed them to breed and sell the pigs for income. From here the idea for Empower Your Neighbor was born.

Cindy utilized her IT background to develop a website that communicates the organization’s story and vision as well as connects families in need with donors to support them. Sr. Maria stayed in touch with the community and developed relationships with the families in need. Sr. Maria and Cindy then traveled to Uganda to meet the families and launch the program by building the first few pigsties. Cindy recalls the very first family they helped when delivering the pig sties. The mother of the family “spoke a little bit of English but we weren’t really talking, she came and she hugged me and she looked at me. And I looked at her and there were no words but there was huge communication. It was a really deep moment.”

As they continued to build Empower Your Neighbor, Sr. Maria and Cindy applied for Seattle University’s Jones Progress Award. The award supports graduating Seattle University students and recent alums in ramping up their new businesses by providing a solid infrastructure of mentoring, grant funds, and connections within the regional entrepreneurial ecosystem. The awards are given annually to teams that successfully meet key criteria and milestones within a 6-month period. Sr. Maria and Cindy spent many hours developing and executing the milestones and were elated when they found out they won the award. “We were so excited,” Sr. Maria explains, “we were the first non-profit to win this award.”

Sr. Maria credits her success to learning about personality types, and building her leadership and communication skills in class, which helped prepare her for a career in the nonprofit industry. She notes, “the other thing I learned about is justice. Everybody deserves something, and I think that pushes me every day. To act for those people. Justice and making change.”

As they continue to grow Empower Your Neighbor, they offer this advice to students:

“Don’t think too small and don’t be so overwhelmed” Cindy said. “When things don’t work out, don’t see it as failure but an opportunity to go in a different direction”

“Follow your dreams” Maria adds. “We had a dream. Our dream was to help those women and God, and it was because of our dream that we ended up where we are.”

To learn more about Empower Your Neighbor visit and for more information about the Master of Arts in Transformational Leadership program visit