Friday, April 13, 2018

Sponsorships & Photos

Hi all,

Hard to believe it's been a month since we were in Ethiopia. The jet lag wasn't too bad this year (thank goodness, since I had to teach the morning after we returned).

Thank you for all of the very nice comments about my blog. I enjoy writing it, even when I'm forcing myself to stay awake back at the hotel after a long day with the kids. Your affirmations keep me going! :-)

One of the things we learned on this trip is that because one of the care points (Grace Baptist) is not at 50% sponsorship, it is difficult to provide regular food to all of the families. The care points try to make sure that all of the families are getting at least some food, so it seems that the staff are at times dipping into their own pockets to make sure everyone gets care.

Thanks to the generosity of many people, we are now at about 40 sponsorships. If we could get just 10 more, all 100 of the children would be able to count on regular food deliveries to their homes. The cost is $38/month, which supports the care point but also provides schooling, counseling, spiritual care, clothing, medical care, and so much more.

The link is:

Here are some photos from our recent trip:

Monday, March 19, 2018

It's All About the Kids

So how does a small group of eight pull off a Vacation Bible School for more than 250 kids at two care centers over over four days? Lots of teamwork, lots of flexibility, and people here in the U.S. who did an amazing job of organizing everything.

Preparations for our annual week in Kombolcha starts months ahead of the actual trip. A few weeks after we return, tentative dates are established for the next visit. Fundraising is now a year-round event, so we are continually logging checks and cash that are given to us for various needs. Over the last couple of years, we constantly monitor the political situation there to make sure there will be no issues with our travel.

The heavy preparations begin four to five months before departure. Candy Tennant will send a notice to all sponsors about the upcoming trip. We notify our church and friends about the dates. Hopefully, we have an idea of the team by early-December. While we usually end up with a team of 12-15, this year we had a team of eight.

In January, Candy Tennant and Lori Laughner go into full organizational mode. Candy handles much of the logistics, working with sponsors to get care packages sent, along with instructions for what can and shouldn't be included. She starts assigning roles to the team members. Usually, we begin regular conference calls to talk about the purpose and philosophy of what we're doing and what can be expected there. She beings to gather lists of what will be needed for crafts, recreation, and other stations. She develops instructions on what we can expect each day and all of the details for getting them done.

Lori works closely with Candy to coordinate any of the needs that we can help with. She gathers donations such as wash clothes, underwear, t-shirts, tooth brushes, and bags. By February, our dining room is stacked with piles of donations. We have a "packing party" every year where many of our friends come over to fill the bags with each of these items for every child. The people who come to the packing party also prepare care packages for unsponsored children so that every kid gets a care package.

With heavy suitcases in hand, we descend on the care points ready for action, knowing that Candy and Lori have made sure we have everything we need. We know as well, that no matter how much planning has been done, things are very fluid once we get to Ethiopia so we are sometimes making it up as we go.

In the past, we have spent the entire day with the kids at Meserete. The plan was always that half of the kids would come in the morning and half would come in the afternoon. That never really happened, as some of the kids had so much fun they'd come twice. We also learned that some were skipping school to attend. We also used to have a structured rotation where the kids would cycle among rec, craft, and singing stations. That also had mixed success as kids would often prefer one or more of the stations so would find a way to participate even longer at their favorite activity.

Our general schedule this year is to spend the morning with the younger kids at CHDA in the morning, do home and IGA visits during the mid-day (along with lunch) and then go to Meserete between three and four, after the older kids were done with school. While it was important that we don't encourage anyone to miss school, it also limited how long we could spend there because we wanted to be done before it got dark so the kids weren't walking many miles to get home on unlit streets.

Tuesday is our first day of VBS. Rob, as the pastor, generally begins the day with a Bible study. The theme this year is "God Loves Me". He leads the kids through the scripture and lesson, through a translator. The lesson is modified for the audience as there is a significant age group between the two care points.

After the lesson, the kids go through stations. The CHDA kids are split between rec and crafts. Tuesday's craft with Myndi and Angel was play doh. It was fun seeing how creative the small children were with the play doh, making houses, crosses, bowls, and animals; some of one color and some of multiple colors. They are also able to color the picture pages that are partially made of black felt. Ty and Glen set up a volleyball net and hit beach balls back and forth. Meanwhile, Michael, Brian, and I were out back distributing care packages.I love handing out care packages. I love seeing the smiles on the kids' faces when they hear the letters translated to them and see the photos of their sponsor families. One little girl started crying as the letter was being read to her. All week, they will be bringing their letters and photos to us, asking if we know their sponsor family. During the care package distribution, we will have our pictures taken with those who we do know the sponsor. Members of our church and many of our friends sponsor kids, so it's fun to see familiar names pop up as they come back to get their gifts.

The last half hour is informal. There's a little bit of play time. I had fun getting down on the ground with the little ones, having them climb over me, under me. around me. I hug them, they hug me. I tickle them, they try to tickle me (I'm not ticklish). The entire courtyard is filled with the sounds of laughter. Off to the side, the parents are smiling. Rob has said that one of the goals of the week is to allow kids to be kids. That's what is happening.

Next, we head inside the church where each of the kids receives a banana and a small loaf of bread. After they finish, we do a closing prayer and the kids come to say good-bye. They're trying to shake hands, but we're teaching them "the American way to hug." Then they find their family member and head off. We pack up and leave. Many of the kids are still outside the gate, so there is another round of good-byes as we slowly make our way to the van.

Next we go visit another IGA. The woman who has started this business is the mother of a girl at Meserete. She buys the freshly picked beans used for shirro (an Ethiopian meal), dries them on large tarps on the roadway outside her house and then separates the beans so that only the yellow ones are left (some of them are green). It's a painstaking, time consuming process. She makes about $400/month. Her hope is to submit another proposal to open a small restaurant at her home. During our meeting, I asked her about how the IGA has made a difference in her life. I felt bad when she started crying. She talked about (through the translator) how being able to provide for her children has made such a difference in her life, that she now has enough money to provide food for her children. She is HIV+ so it is hard to get work and to get loans. She also talked about the impact the sponsorship program has had on her family and her daughter. It was a touching moment. I think all of us were a little moist in the eyes.

After lunch at the hotel and a little down time, we headed over to Meserete. The activities were similar to the morning, but we gave less structure. Kids could go and do whatever they wanted. There is no play doh for the older children. There is also a period of free time at the end when they are receiving their bread and bananas. The day's activities have loosened them up and the church is filled with laughter. Michael and Ty are constantly surrounded on all sides by kids, mostly girls...

We head back to the hotel for dinner and preparations for the next day.

Wednesday and Thursday are essentially the same structure, except that Brian does the Bible lesson, continuing on the theme of "God Loves Me". He did a really nice job tailoring the stories and the lesson to his audience. On Thursday, since most of the care packages have been distributed Brian and I set up a station of games such as checkers and Jenga. There are also barrels of plastic monkeys, most of which disappear by the end of Friday, and pick up sticks, which also disappeared.We also had Connect Four, which we only took out for the older kids since the pieces were so small and it's harder to explain it to younger children. All of the games were big hits.

Friday was structured a little differently. Before we started though, we visited Wollo University, a school that some of the older teens are now attending. The school specializes in science and engineering. The campus is only ten years old, but was bustling with activity. We had to pass through a guard gate to enter the campus, at which the guard took our passports to hold while we were on our tour. I must admit to a bit of needless anxiety as he was there to return them as we left. While walking on campus, we ran into Rahel (Rah-hell), one of our translators of many years. She is in her last year of receiving a degree in mechanical engineering. I hope we get to see her next year, but it is unlikely as she expects not to be able to get work in Kombolcha.

Next we head to Meserete. The last day is similar every year. Rob talks about Jesus washing feet and the significance of that action. Then we wash the kids' feet. And then they want to wash ours. I don't know how many times Michael and Ty had their feet washed, but they were probably the best smelling feet in the country, if not the continent. Then it's on to the feast. Every year we raise money to provide a feast on the last day. The cost had increased dramatically this year, so we were unsure if we were going to be able to do it, but Hillsong Church provided the funds. We have lamb (as fresh as lamb can get, carrots and potatoes, bread, injera, and more. There is also a very rare treat; soda. There is always enough food for the kids to come back for as much as they want. Then we spend an hour playing. It's free time, but Jenga, checkers, and Connect Four are very popular. There is also face and nail painting. It's so great to see these kids being kids, and acting like they don't have a care in the world. I know they have tremendous burdens, and I hope that this was a time that they could let go just a bit. After our good-byes, we proceed to CHDA for our last time with them. We don't have a feast, but we do hand out bananas, oranges, bread and soda. There is enough that we also give the parents and other family members outside food as well. Lots of smiles, lots of laughing, lots of kids being kids.

We head back to the hotel for a brief break before heading back to Meserete for dinner. The church has held a potluck dinner for us each year. It's a chance to meet some of the church leaders. They are always very thankful for us coming. Glen and Angel stayed behind because they are not filling well. The church leaders gave each of us a certificate and scarf. The pastor said that he was especially impressed that we came given the political unrest in the country. He said that our coming shows even more our love for the children.

Interesting tidbit: Ethiopian names are such that a child has a given name, but the surname is the first name of the father. For example, Daniel's name was Fitsum Daniel as Daniel was his father's name. When Michael received his certificate, he noted that it said "Michael Tom" for his name.

After a short program and a sermon from Rob, we head back to the hotel. The plan is for us to fly back to Kombolcha (which didn't white work out. See my separate post about our adventure.) Tesfaye is leaving at 5:30am so we need to have our bags packed and to him. (In retrospect, we should have left with Tesfaye at 5:30am).

It's been a wonderful week. I wish we had more time to spend at each of the care points. I'm going to miss it here. During one of the leaders' talks, he notes that Ethiopia is our second home. That's very true. While I'm ready to come home, and sleep in my own bed and shower in my own bathroom, with hot water and water pressure, a part of me is always in Ethiopia. I can't wait to be able to return.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

An Easy Trip Was Too Good to Be True

I interrupt the description of our time at the care points to talk about our trip from Kombolcha back to Addis. What was supposed to be a quick thirty-minute flight turned out to be anything but...

Our flight was to leave Kombolcha at 9:30 this morning. Being such a small airport, we didn't leave the hotel until almost 8:15 for the quick trip. We didn't have bags to check as Tesfayeye (Tess-fie-ay), our driver had left at 5:30am with our suitcases. We only had our carry on bags.

The first sign that this was going to be a different kind of day was when we got dropped off. We had to show our passports before we could enter the terminal compound. I reached in to where I had kept the passports all week and could only find my passport. Michael's wasn't there. I frantically emptied my backback (I mean I had everything spread out on the concrete ramp.) Then I started going through my camera bag. I had put the passports in the camera bag during one of our visits so thought it might be in there. I first checked the pocket I had put it in. Nothing. Meanwhile, Michael is starting to get a little upset (understandably). I was getting a little nervous. I yelled at the van driver not to leave in case I needed to return to the hotel. I was also wondering if it had gotten put in one of the suitcases that was in the van now on its way to Addis Ababa. I started to pull the camera out and there it was. Whew. Crisis 1 averted.

Next we walk into the terminal through a security gate. All of us sail through, except for Myndi, who didn't know that someone had stuck some scissors in her bag. The monitor showed her the image on the monitor. Rather than have them confiscated, Brian agreed to check his bag so they could be put in there. Crisis 2 averted.

Then we check in. It's a long line, but moves quickly. Brian gets checked in very easily. I even remark to him, "Boy that was easy." When I get up in line, the attendant gets a brief scowl on his face and asks for my credit card. Apparently he has to confirm my credit card number. (I had received an email from Ethiopian Airlines shortly after making my reservation, asking me to send in a form to authorize my credit card purchase. Since the charges had already shown up on my account, and since I'd never seen anything like this before, and since you can never trust what shows up in email, I ignored it.) Well, apparently it was legitimate so they had to run the card that I had used to make the purchase. It was a bit of a delay, but luckily I had the card I'd used to make the purchase. Crisis 3 averted.

Rob, unfortunately, wasn't so lucky. His wife, Candy, had made the reservation so he didn't have the credit card she'd used to make the purchase. I'm not sure how they finally resolved it, but everyone eventually showed up in the waiting room. It had been so long, I peeked around the corner at one point to make sure they were still in the airport. Crisis 4 averted.

While we had been waiting for Rob, a notice popped up on my phone that our flight was delayed. We would now be leaving at 11:10. One of the employees came into the room where we were waiting and announced the delay was because of weather. First he made the announcement in Amharic, and then in English. No problem, as I'd already learned of the change and we still would have plenty of time for Brian to make his 10:30pm flight.

Thirty minutes later, a different employee comes into our room and starts speaking in Amharic. I immediately look to Abigail, our translator, to see if she shows any expression. Uh oh. She doesn't look happy.

His English announcement conveys the bad news. Because of weather, the plane to Kombolcha did not leave Addis. Our flight was cancelled and we would be rescheduled on the next flight....tomorrow.

Our group quickly convenes to discuss options. One option is for Brian to rebook his flight, we stay at Sunny Side another night, and take the flight on Sunday. The problems are that we don't know if there would be seats on the next night's flight for Brian, we don't know if the Sunny Side has any rooms available, and what happens if Sunday's flight to Addis is also cancelled?

The second option is to find a van willing to drive us eight hours to Addis. We had originally wanted to drive back to see the countryside, but had opted to fly because of the political situation here and the number of checkpoints that had reportedly been set up on the highway connecting the two cities. Abigail feels it is safe to drive, so sets about to find a ride. She finds one, so we convene outside to wait, and wait, and wait. About an hour later, a van shows up. It's a mini van, with an emphasis on the word mini. The seats are filthy and the whole vehicle smells of stale perspiration. But...we are on our way.

Time: 11:30. Time we need to be at airport: no later than 7:30. Time until Brian's flight: 11 hours.

Right before we leave the airport, two other men also get in the van. There are not enough seats for them, so they crouch in the open area next to the van door.

Speaking of the van door, the inside latch doesn't work. So the driver starts accelerating with the van door still open. Michael is sitting right next to the door so expresses some concern about the situation. Suddenly, the driver taps on the brakes. We jerk forward, but the momentum of the stop slams the door shut.

Having been in Kombolcha many times, I know the way to the highway, and the driver does not seem to be moving in the right direction. We wind through downtown Kombolcha, getting caught in a traffic jam with taxis, and trucks, and vans turned every which way. At one point, our driver gets out of the van and disappears. After a few minutes, and after the traffic has cleared he jumps back in and starts driving.

Next, he pulls into a gas station. The gas station is crowded with trucks and taxis and vans and our driver weaves through them to get to a pump. We pass precariously close to another van as he drives right past the pumps and pulls out of the gas station. Apparently, the electricity is out so the pumps can't work.

Finally, we start heading towards the highway only to pull onto a side road. The driver turns off the engine, jumps out of the van, and disappears into a house. The two men also get out and one of them jumps on top of the van and comes down with a tire. My first thought was that he was going to change one of the tires. We're really in trouble. Luckily, he carries the tire into the same house where the driver just disappeared into.

And we wait. It turns out that the man who drove us so crazily through the streets of Kombolcha is not the same man who will be driving us to Addis. There was a communication mix-up and the Addis driver had gone to the airport. We needed to wait for him. Finally, sweaty, he shows up, jumps into the driver's seat and starts the engine. Turns out they are brothers. The two, plus the man who brought the tire down from atop the bus start talking. The conversation between the two standing outside the bus becomes more heated. As we pull away, the two are yelling at each other and bumping shoulders. We drive off as the two continue their altercation behind us.

Time: 12:11. Time until Brian's flight: 10 hours.

We are finally underway. The going is slow at first because of traffic, pedestrians, animals, and speed bumps. At the airport, we'd had a discussion about what time we might get to the airport and how many check points we'd encounter. The range for check points was from zero to five. Time to the airport ranged from 4:30 until 8:00.

Five minutes into the drive, we hit the first check point. A man in a blue police uniform pulls us over and walks over to the driver (his name is Absu). Just as the officer starts talking, a man runs up, hands the officer a sheet of paper and runs off. Without another word, the officer waves us on.

Ten minutes later, we hit the second check point. This time, the woman in a similar blue police uniform motions for Abdu to get out of the van. About fifty feet behind us, the woman starts yelling at Abdu, with big had gestures. I'm not sure what she was upset about, but she went on, and on, and on. We started to worry that we were not going to be able to continue our trip and would have to wait for the next day's flight after all. Abigail eventually goes back to join the conversation. (talk to me for the activity that occurs here). She immediately releases Abdu and we continue on.

Now we're moving. Abdu appears to be trying to make up for lost time. He's weaving around slower vehicles, honking at animals and pedestrians, and generally driving very fast. Dangerously fast. There are three of us in the back seat and as the van doesn't appear to have very good shock absorbers, are having quite the amusement park ride experience as we bounce up and down. Fortunately, there is a high roof so we aren't hitting our heads.

At 1:30, we'd been driving for about 40 minutes, Abigail tells us that Abdu hadn't had breakfast or lunch and wants to stop to eat. Ten minutes later, he pulls off the road into a hotel complex with a small store, patio area with pool table, large parking lot, and landscaped courtyard. Leaving the engine running, he gets out of the driver's seat, gets into a waiting car, and leaves. Abigail explains that he parked us in a "safe place" while he went to get his lunch.

Time: 1:41

While we're waiting, several use what they describe as the smelliest bathrooms ever. We go to the store to buy water and soda. Glen, Michael, and Ty play frisbee with a small crocheted disc. The car that had whisked Abdu returns, without Abdu. We're a little concerned. And, by the way, the van is still running.

After about 40 minutes, he returns. He has bread and bananas in hand for us (Abigail had asked him to bring them) and we head off again. But, we turn the wrong way out of the parking lot. Ah...we're getting gas.

Time: 2:45. Another check point. Abdu immediately jumps out of his seat and walks back to the officer. After some undisclosed activity, we are on our way again.

Time: 3:45. We've made really good progress. There's been some rain, but nothing too serious. We've been making up time. I'm glad at this point that I wasn't sitting in the front seat as I would have had a heart attack with the number of close calls we'd had. Another checkpoint. I watch again as Abdu jumps out of the van. He shakes the officer's hand, and turns around to get back in the van. The officer puts his hand in his pocket. We continue on.

Suddenly Abdu pulls off the road. Apparently he has to pee. He disappears down over the hillside and returns a few minutes later. We're off again.

We have started to ascend into the mountain pass. The air is getting cooler, the trees are getting thicker, and road is getting windier. There are no villages, and very few animals or people. We appear to be in the middle of nowhere. But...

4:25. Another checkpoint. Same routine. Friendly handshake, officer puts something in his pocket, we continue driving. We're still passing big trucks on a highway that now has hair pin turns. We enter a long, narrow tunnel behind a truck that has a sign on the back with a sign that says "Flammable Gas". And yes, we pass the truck, in the tunnel, with a truck coming the other direction. Just in time, we get back into our own lane, in front of the gas truck.

5:33. We enter the town of Debre Birhan. It's a pretty big town. Traffic is heavy, but moving. This is usually a stopping point for us. I'm hoping that we don't stop. Time is getting tight. Suddenly, Abdu makes a sharp left turn onto a side street. We all look at each other. What's going on? Abdu makes a right, drives about a mile, makes another right, and then we're back at the highway we just exited. He makes another left and we continue on. If he was trying to take a shortcut, it doesn't seem to have saved any time. We drive past the restaurant at which we normally stop. We are on our way again.

6:07. Another checkpoint. This time the officer walks up to our vehicle, has a few words, and waves us on.

6:47. Abdu suddenly pulls off to the side of the road. I don't see any police officers. He jumps out of the van and runs across the street, holding his pants up. Ah, he needs to pee so he relieves himself on the side of the road.

Fortunately, that was our last stop. We drive into Addis, with thicker traffic, more pedestrians, and lots of noise. At one point, we are at a dead stop because of a line of buses that cross multiple lanes. We nudge past them, with what seems to be less than an inch between us.

7:47pm. We arrive at the airport. Tesfaye is waiting for us! It's so great to see him. We gather our bags, say good-bye to Brian, and board Tesfaye's bus for a relatively easy ride to the guest house.

Let's hope that's the end of our travel adventures and that we can leave Addis tonight on a jet plane bound for home.

Post note: Found out today that the driver had just driven from Addis the night before so he was tired. Abigail had to continue to prod and talk to him to keep him awake. I'm glad I didn't know that while we were driving!

Day One: Here We Go!

Saturday, March 17

It's 9:15am on Saturday, March 17. We're sitting at the Kombolcha airport, waiting for our flight back to Addis Ababa. The flight is supposed to leave at 9:30 but we just learned it's been delayed 90 minutes. The extra time is giving me a moment to reflect on this past week.

Our time here is spent with over 200 kids at two care points in Kombolcha. One of the care points, Meserete Baptist Church, serves the kids with whom we've known the longest. I first met them in 2009 when a group of us came to Ethiopia and visited care points to determine which one we wanted to work with. We've watched them develop and mature, experience hardships and joys. Some of them are off to college, some of them have started their own businesses, and one of them was recently married. As they've left, new children have come into the program.

The second care point is sponsored by Grace Baptist Church. Here, another 100 children, come for care and assistance. While there are a few older children, by and large, these kids are young. Most of them are between six and ten. We've been with them three times, although this is the first year that we put on a full program with them.

Because we had a small team this year (we had eight where we normally have between 12 and 15), it was a chaotic week to put on a full program twice a day. We also had a different guide, as Fikre (Feek-rah) got a promotion so has new responsibilities. Our new guide, Abigail, was fantastic and extremely helpful. We miss Fikre, but it was great getting to know Abigail and look forward to working with her in future years.

Upon our arrival in Kombolcha on Monday, we went straight to Grace Baptist where the kids were waiting for us. The church is constructed of a wood frame of tree long thin trees covered by corrugated metal. Also on the compound is a series of small offices, with doors opening to the outside and what I guess you could call a bathroom but is really an enclosed hole in the ground.

The compound is surrounded by a corrugated metal wall with an entrance protected by a sliding gate. Through the gate is a small grassy area. The church is on the left with a twenty feet stretch of grass that runs the length of the church and the offices beyond. As we entered the compound on Monday, throngs of small children rushed to greet us. A common greeting here is to extend the right hand to shake while gripping the same arm with the left hand just above the elbow. One after another, children extend their hands to greet us, with a bashful grin on their faces. Past the kids, parents, mostly mothers, are standing or sitting against the wall opposite the church. Some are smiling and extending their hands in greeting. Others are more reserved.

The church itself is simple. On one side of the church is a stage covered with a once bright sheet of linoleum. On the stage is a simple white lectern. A white cross hangs on the wall behind the lectern. In front of the stage are rows of wooden benches, onto which the kids start to sit. The floor of the church is dusty cement. Two open doors and a window are the only light into the room.

Rob introduced each of us, and after our own short introductions, everyone went outside. It was a bit awkward at first as none of us could talk to each other and we didn't have anything planned. However, after a few minutes, Ektu, one of the translators organized everyone into a big circle. He told us that he was going to call out a number between one and five and everyone then had to create a group of that number. Anyone left out had to sit in the middle.

Well that was the end of the awkwardness. The courtyard was soon filled with laughter as we ran around trying to create our groups. At least one of the adults was a little too competitive, pulling kids out of other already formed groups or telling other kids that their group was already formed and pushing them away. It was all done in a good natured way. Everyone was having a blast.

After an hour, we said our good-byes and headed to the bus. The kids again held out their hands as they had done earlier to shake our hands, but most us pulled them in for hugs. They were a little surprised.

The next stops were for some home visits. One of the stops was at the home of Samuel, the sponsored child of our friends the DiNapolis.

Samuel lives in a small 10x10 mud house that is part of a complex of five or six other similar houses. A single flourescent light bulb hangs from the middle of the room. To the left of the door is a mat on the floor and to the right is a higher mattress. In the middle of the dirt floor is a coffee pot and a tray of small cups. Sitting just outside the door is an older woman, Samuel's grandmother. She is blind.

Samuel's mother greets us warmly. We ask her about her family and her circumstances. Samuel has two siblings, both older than him. Five people, including the grandmother live in the home. Samuel's father was killed in the civil war with Eritrea when he was a baby, so he has never known his family. She thanks us for the sponsorship and tells us that it means a lot to her and Samuel. The Bogdanovich's are with us and Myndi lets her know that Ty Bogdanovich and Jack DiNapoli, both 7th graders, are good friends. After a few more minutes, we left with our good-byes. Samuel is a small, wiry boy with a shy demeanor. While playful at the care point, he was much more reserved than the other kids.

After a couple more home visits by other team members, we went to the home of the child whose mother has taken advantage of the IGA program. The purpose of this program (income generating activity) is to give start up funds to begin businesses. There is a formal application and reviewal process that enables families who otherwise can't get bank loans. The IGA program is part of the mission of Children's Hopechest to break the cycle of poverty. As Rob Tennant, the leader of our team says, "we want to make sure the kids of these kids don't need this program." We will be visiting several of the IGA projects this week.

Our first visit is to the home of a child whose mother is making embroidered pillow cases. Her work is amazingly beautiful. She talks about how the IGA program allowed her to get started by purchasing materials. I'll post a photo of her work later.

Next, we head back to the hotel for a quick checkin, lunch, and time to refresh. Since the kids at Meserete are in school during the day, and since we know in the past they have skipped school in order to attend our camp, we have purposely scheduled our time there at 4:00.

We actually arrive early (how often does that happen in Ethiopia?) so are asked to wait in the bus. The choir is preparing a program for us and we can hear them singing. After awhile, we get clearance to enter and are greeted with the familiar faces we've come to know so well. Abeaubo (A-boe-boe) (sponsored by Carey Douglas) greets each of us with a paper rose and we take our seats in the front row. Then the choir comes up and sings their fabulous songs. Rob introduces us, and then we have time to spend with the kids.

However, there's a different vibe this year. I don't know if it's because the kids are older and too cool to be excited or if it's because we haven't been here in two years so some distance has developed, but they are very reserved. Michael wades into a group of kids and is quickly surrounded. One girl wants to play music for him, and asks him to play music as well. It's kind of fun watching them use music as a form of communication. Some of the songs she plays are familiar (Justin Bieber, anyone?) and some are traditional Ethiopian songs. She tries to get Michael to dance, but can't quite get him to do it.

After about an hour, we head back to the hotel for dinner and to call it a day. I'll write about the hotel we're staying at later, but I'll just say that it may have had it's day, but that day is definitely past! :-)

On Tuesday, we started the formal VBS program. It was an interesting week. Over the week, we built close relationships with the youngsters at CHDA (Grace Baptist) and got the teens at Meserete to be more open. We visited more IGAs, did more home visits, handed out care packages from sponsors, identified needs by the children or care points, and tried to get some rest. It was a great week! I'll write more about the week in a separate post.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Kombolcha: A City in Transition

The care points we visit are located in Kombolcha, located about 157 miles northeast of Addis Ababa. The drive here is amazing, as you start in the highlands of Addis, weave through flatlands and then begin a slow ascent into the mountains. As you gain attitude, the air becomes brisker and the hills steeper. Small towns provide a brief change in scenery as people scatter across streets carrying baskets, encouraging livestock, or waving down taxis or buses. During certain times of the year, if you keep an eye out, you can see water cascading down a cliff face. If you're not in a town, you see farmers tending their fields on tiered hillsides, most likely shaped centuries ago. You see kids herding animals, primarily goats and cows. Kids hang out at the doors of their huts. You keep driving higher, being able to see mountain upon mountain for miles and miles. If you're lucky, you'll see baboons playing on a hillside.

About four hours into the drive, there's a tunnel. It's not a long tunnel, short enough that you can see the light at the end but long enough that you need headlights.

When you come out on the other end, the landscape has completely changed. The trees are so close together that you wonder what kind of creature might possibly be able to squeeze in between. There are often baboons perched on the walls on the side of the road. You begin a mostly slow, but at times steep, descent on a winding road with several switchbacks. The temperature rises as the The trees thin out until you are in a desert similar to what you would see in the southwest. There are even prickly pear cacti. For the first time, you see camels hauling produce and other materials. Then, you begin a slow ascent over two to three hours into Kombolcha, which has a climate similar to what you'd find in southern California. There are lots of camels here too.

I've done this drive, back and forth, many times. Two years ago, we started flying one way and then driving back just so the people who hadn't been on the trip had the chance to see the beautiful countryside. Our plans were the same this year, but due to some continued uncertainty about the political climate here, we decided to fly both ways. There are apparently some random checkpoints along the way and we didn't want to take a chance with long delays, especially since one of our team is flying home on Saturday night.

An eight hour drive turns into a 45 minute flight, landing at an airport that is nothing more than an open air two-room cinder block building divided in two. One side of the building is for security and departures and the other side is for arrivals. The runway seems intensely short, and it is kind of alarming to see soldiers armed with rifles patrolling the open fields next to it. The plane stops far away from the terminal and we walk the hundred yards to the terminal. A small vehicle pulls a cart with our luggage to the terminal. Two years ago, a man lugged the cart laden with suitcases without any kind of assistance.

Kombolcha itself is an interesting city. The population is about 100,000. The city center has a traffic circle with dozens of shops alongside. People are walking everywhere, with dozens and dozens of small blue and white three wheeled taxis skirting about, driving between cars and around people, honking horns as they go. Large trucks spewing diesel fumes compete for space on the roads. The common thinking is that the bigger vehicles always get the right of way, but the taxi drivers are strong-willed and usually get their way when competing with the other vehicles. I've been here enough times that I believe I could find my way around the major streets quite easily. However, there are lots of neighborhoods that are warrens of unmarked roads with closely packed houses. Some neighborhoods aren't even approachable by car. Instead, you have to walk along well worn trails, up and down steep hills, over tree roots, and around animal droppings, sometimes for at least half a mile. I don't know how GPS would ever be effective in some parts of this city.

Just to the west of downtown is a river. It's apparent that there are times of the year when the river is quite full, but every time I've been here, there is just a small rivulet running down the middle of the ravine. It's wide and deep enough, though, to be used by people washing clothes or even the occasional man washing himself in all his glory. 

There is a lot of construction here. Well-established stores in the center of town have new floors being added on top. Lots that were once empty now have buildings in various stages of construction. There appears to be a new highway west of our hotel. A gleaming factory of some sort next to the airport is new since we were here last. Progress has come to Kombolcha. It's nowhere close to the progress that Addis has made. It's still extremely dusty here, with litter everywhere.

But there's lots of potential. A new train that runs from Addis to Djibouti runs through Kombolcha, which should bring economic opportunities. There is a technical college and university here. I am told that Kombolcha is going to focus on industry, which should bring plenty of jobs.

There are three major religions in Ethiopia; Christian, Greek Orthodox, and Moslem. 70% of the population is moslem. We are often woken at sunrise by the call to prayers from the local mosque. Despite this, people of the three religions peacefully co-exist here. Many of the families in the care points have one parent of one religion and another parent from another religion. There are no tensions between any of them. When we do the feast on the last day, there are three tables for each of the three have different requirements for how the meal can be prepared or what they can eat. The kids, no matter their religion, easily play and talk to each other. And though the care points are housed in churches, there are no restrictions on what religion a child has to be in order to participate in the program.

Because of the political tensions in the country, we have been asked not to wonder around town on our own. Two years ago, Glen and I went for a run up a nearby highway, waving and saying "Selam" along the way. We haven't left the hotel without an Ethiopian with us, which is disappointing. Hopefully on our next visit, we'll be able to venture out and get to know this city that we've come to know so well even more.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Universal Love and Joy

March 14, 2018

If you pay attention around here, you'll find there are subtle and not so subtle differences between being in a country like Ethiopia and the United States. Buildings are constructed differently, people greet each other differently, driving patterns vary. The list goes on and on.

However, if we were to really pay attention, you would notice that we are more similar than different.

Today, we again spent time at each of the care points. The first stop was CHDA, which has mostly younger kids, most under the age of 10. Meserete Kristos is the care point with the kids we've spent most of our time with going back to 2009. They're older, most of them are in high school. A couple of them are now enrolled in a college or university.

The routine at the care point this week is to give the kids a Bible story, then simultaneously deliver care packages from sponsor families, let the kids do a craft, and give them a rec opportunity. Today they made masks out of paper plates for their craft and played a bunch of different games outside. It was a little chaotic, especially since our team is so small. During the last half hour, we all gathered outside and had a free for all.

It's been a long time since I've seen so much joy at one time. Imagine six adults and two teenagers surrounded by the laughing, energetic, and unbridled enthusiasm of 100+ children. Michael and Ty were playing keep away by tossing a green squishy ball back and forth. There were at least twenty kids running back and forth between them, climbing on them as they tried to get the ball. Michael went down at one point, only to come up with kids still hanging from his shoulders, arms, and legs. Not being as big as Michael, Ty was quicker to throw the ball to Michael when the kids started to be too much. The laughter was infectious.

I started my time outside by taking pictures of the kids with their masks. They were very excited to see themselves, so there was always a mad scramble to see the photos after they were taken. We then graduated to group hugs (with me picking them up and spinning them). Then, somehow, I was on the ground with them climbing all over me, with me lifting them over my shoulders, tickling them as I set them on the ground. Finally, we started playing thumb wars. Of course their thumbs were much smaller than mine, so it was more of them playing keep away with their thumb while mine tried to pin down their wiggling digit.

What was so fantastic about this time was that it didn't matter that none of us understood a word of what the other was saying. It didn't matter that next week I'll go home to a life of comfort while they go home to a small, cramped dark room not knowing where there next meal will come from. The important thing was our shared desire to have fun with each other, to laugh with each other, and to love each other. At the end of the day, the kids who were so tentative yesterday were giving us hugs and kisses and heartfelt good-byes. Love and joy are universal. We need it, we desire it, and most of us exhibit it.

The teenagers at Meserte Kristos have a much different vibe. While they were the exuberant youth just a few years ago, now they are more reserved. They're too cool to get excited about care packages, answer the questions being asked during Bible study, or to volunteer for an activity.

This afternoon, we put together the same program that we did in the morning. However, the Bible lesson was modified for the older crowd. We then did the same triad of care packages, crafts, and rec. However, we provided no additional structure, allowing them to do what they wanted. I was working with care packages, so didn't see how crafts and rec were going, but it sounded like things went well with the kids actively participating. You could tell that the kids were interested in the letter and the photos, but expressed it in a way that didn't give away too much of their emotion. There were brief smiles but if you weren't looking you missed it.

Again, there was thirty minutes after the distribution of bread and bananas for free time. Again, this is when the mood changed. One of the girls was playing music on a speaker, trying to encourage the others to dance. Some girls retreated to one of the corners and were whispering "amongst themselves", occasionally giggling and pulling in tighter. A group of boys were in the courtyard kicking soccer balls. One of the girls seemed to have taken an interest in Michael and had been hanging around him a lot the last two days. We told her that he already has a girlfriend, after which she showed a huge look of disappointment. Several of the kids with whom I'd gotten to know over the years, sought me out to say goodbye for the day and give me a hug. Our sponsored daughter asked if Lori was going to return. I told her that she wanted to come back but wasn't able to at the moment. Her response was gracious, saying that she wished Lori well and that she couldn't wait to see her.

Teenagers are an interesting breed, and the teens here certainly showed the same types of behaviors exhibited by our own teens; disinterest and nonchalance, but also care, joy and love.

We are all different in so many ways. In our country, many are expressing those differences in ways that divide us. However, despite our differences, we all have more in common than we want to believe. We have common traits. Deep down we are all the same, formed by the same God, and should be united as we navigate our lives together so far apart, but so close together.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018


Tuesday, March 13

I didn't mean to make her cry. I thought it was a straight-forward question, but once again I was reminded of the power of words, even when the intent is innocent.

One of the most appealing aspects of the philosophy of Children's Hopechest is their work to help the children and their families become self-sufficient so that the kids of the current care point participants won't need such a program. Education has been a key part of that, with sponsorship money helping to pay for schooling as well as any obstacles that might get in the way of going to school, such as food and school supplies. Sponsorship can even continue once the child has left the care point as long as s/he is attending a college or university.

Recently, Children's Hopechest has started to develop an IGA (income generating activity) program. This program provides grants to families wishing to being a business so that the up front costs don't get in the way of getting started. Several years ago, a couple participating in this trip bought a couple of bicycles for a disabled veteran, whose son was in the program. He used the bikes to start a rental business and has since purchased additional bikes and is also doing bicycle repair. There are now a handful of these IGAs, with money being raised to fund some more.

Today we visited a woman who has used the money to start a business to purchase the beans used to make shirra. She then dries and sorts the beans to sell in the market.

My question asked her to discuss the impact of the IGA program and how it has helped her get started. Her answer was in Amharic, so I wasn't getting the full impact of what she was saying until a tear started running down her face.

She described, through the translator, how before she had started her business, she couldn't afford to eat, much less feed her children. She is HIV+, so it is very hard for her to find work. Thanks to the business, she is now able to provide for her family. She also expressed her thanks for the care point and sponsorship so that her daughter has a place to go for care.

Even though we were outside, and Ethiopia never seems to be quiet, it was eerily quiet in the courtyard both as she told her story, and it was translated to us. A few in the group were wiping away their own tears as by now the woman's eyes were full of tears. The translator was also visibly affected as she listened and then again as she told us the story.

She went on to tell us how she has dreams of expanding her business into other areas such as berber. She also talked about starting a small restaurant at which she could make and serve food and increase her profit.

These stories are powerful and I was so glad I was able to hear it.

As we left, she gave each of us a hug and started crying again as I hugged her. With more tears, she was talking to me in a loving tone. I didn't understand what she was saying, but I didn't need to as I understood fully the effect the actions of people half a world away have had on a woman trying her best to provide for her family under very difficult circumstances.

I didn't mean to make her cry, but I'm thankful for being able to hear her story.