My Trip to Africa for the World Orphan Fund
I have recently returned from a nearly two-week trip to the African countries of Kenya, Ethiopia, and Uganda. This trip was part of the outreach efforts for The World Orphan Fund charity that my husband founded. I mainly play a supporting role to this effort, but I often get asked how “we” started this charity.
Here’s the team we traveled with on this trip. (L to R Dena Donovan, me, RJ Johnson, Tom & Elizabeth Evenson, Steve Donovan, and Ellen Nowak)
Ten years ago, my husband (RJ) was a chaperone on a mission trip our daughter was on. One of the male volunteers had dropped out and they needed someone in a hurry. He went. One of the staffers he met on this trip told him about a special place in Honduras called Orphanage Emmanuel that members of her church visited each year to work on projects and assist with the kids. There’s a sweet story about their conversation where the young woman says, “I think I’m supposed to ask you to go with us.” And my husband replies, “I think I’m supposed to say yes.” So in January of 2011, RJ went to Honduras with folks from a church in Georgia. He spent two weeks there and came home with an idea.
I’m sure I had the “Are you crazy look?” on my face as he told me that he wanted to start a charity that would assist orphans. He insisted that we could do it and we could make a difference. He saw the need at just the one orphanage that he’d become familiar with. He described it as a small charity—maybe just one or two projects a year. He knew our friends and family would want to help, and I couldn’t disagree.
His idea was that we, along with the other board members, would support the administrative costs, so that every dollar we asked for would go directly to helping orphans. I liked this a lot. Just like you, we’d grown tired of donating to charities with big overhead.
(But here’s the truth. I kind of wanted to say no. The idea scared me. I wasn’t sure we could do it. There were a thousand reasons not to do this . . . but RJ was so excited about the possibilities of what this group could do that I couldn’t say no.)
The World Orphan Fund was born!
And although it started small, it didn’t stay that way. Since 2011, our board members or advisors have traveled to 17 countries, visited 75+ homes for orphans, and funded more than 70 projects. Learn more on our website (you can watch a video there describing our efforts): https://www.theworldorphanfund.com/
It’s rather amazing how one person with an idea becomes a group with a board of directors and advisors of 15 and more than 100 volunteers with a mission that is supported by hundreds of donors, helping thousands of orphans.
This hasn’t always been easy. We’ve most certainly had disappointing days and setbacks, but then there are those moments when you know that this journey is blessed in so many ways. Truly, each time there is a hurdle to overcome or we begin to worry just how we might accomplish a task, a solution presents itself.
Whether it was a well-known person agreeing to be the keynote speaker at our most crucial fundraiser for no fee, or when a much-needed grant comes through at just the right time, or something as simple as solving the lack of a technician to install dental chairs at an orphanage clinic by fortuitously sitting next to a nun on your flight home who happens to know exactly who to call to get the job done. (True stories!)
The projects we’ve funded include wells and filtering systems for clean water, energy efficiency, special-needs therapies, housing, emergency food assistance, medical support for surgeries or equipment, sustainability projects, educational programs and staff, and transition programs as children age out of the orphanage setting. That last program is one that is very dear to my heart. When teens who have been sheltered inside a children’s home (often for many years) transition to the outside world without any assistance more than 80% of them end up in a life of crime, drugs, or prostitution. Our transition programs give them the chance to meet their full potential and avoid the pitfalls of a broken society. We can now ask, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” and not have it be a meaningless question because there is a real path to that dream.
A key component of deciding which projects to support relies on in-person visits to these children’s homes by board members or trusted advisors. Our visits assure us that the children at each home are being properly cared for and that there are good systems in place for health, education, general well-being and more. Unfortunately, we have witnessed government-run orphanages with unspeakable conditions and homes where kids are being used for labor and not attending school. Luckily, those poor situations are rare.
Our recent trip to Africa allowed us to audit ongoing projects and survey some other children’s home for specific needs. You can see where we went in the map below.
Through much of our trip in Kenya and Uganda we were accompanied by our friend Maurice Odhiambo, the founder of Manna Ministries, and his team. In Nairobi, Kenya we visited two of the schools established in the vast slums of this city of 4.5 million people. As you can imagine, these schools have very few resources and yet they persevere. The Manna Ministry team feeds 4000 students two meals each day. Without this assistance most of these children would go hungry. We then visited Mum’s Love, a cramped children’s home with nearly 30 young kids, where a single caregiver is giving her all every day.
In Kisumu, Kenya we were pleased to visit Manna Academy, a school where approximately 65% of the students are orphans. While this school has challenges (like building government-approved classrooms and feeding and clothing the students), it was obvious the children were being provided with a quality education and support. The efforts here impact the greater community also with the well for the school providing clean water for the area population. There’s also a tailoring and computer programming courses to give wage-earning skills to adults. These positive efforts contrasted greatly with a government-run orphanage we visited later where the conditions had us very upset.
Manna Academy students greeting us as we arrive.
Here we’re helping to hand out the porridge the kids receive at about 10 am. It’s a mixture of sorghum, millet, corn meal (like grits), and a small bean, which looked like miniature soybeans. It’s chosen for it’s nutritional value for the kids.
We visited many widows’ homes. Some of these women take care of orphan children. Lake Victoria was visible from many of these homes and one of the women at age 73 walks 1 km each way to the shores of the lake to get fish that she then fries up and takes to the market which is a 10 km round trip. Because we were visiting she insisted upon feeding us some of the fish. These were very small tilapia and when fried up, you ate them whole. They were crunchy and delicious.
Near Busia Uganda, the team made a return visit to The Village of Eden home which cares for orphans and provides schooling for both them and area students. They also have a community church, a nutritional program, and a clinic that serves up to 150 patients per day. We previously provided blood testing equipment that allows them to more quickly diagnose (and treat) ailments like malaria and HIV. (We learned on this visit that people come from miles and miles away for these tests which are largely unavailable or very costly in this area of Uganda.)
Here women are waiting at the vaccination clinic with their babies.
In Nebbi, Uganda we visited the Acres of Hope Children’s Home and School. Many of the children live in small homes within the orphanage complex with house mothers. They walk home for lunch on school days. Here they’re eating beans and a soft bread made out of a mixture of sorghum and cassava flour.
We went so many places in our short time in these countries and learned much! Now, it’s time we assess the potential projects and come up with a plan (along with the rest of the board) for which ones we’ll work at funding first!
There’s so much to learn when we go on a trip like this, but the most important things you gain are true friendships and the confirmation that we are all more alike than we are different as we work to make the world a little better one child at a time.