I was living in Ethiopia from 1999 to 2003 and working for the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa. I was fascinated by the beauty of the country, its cultural wealth and diversity and its people. Then, in 2002, Ethiopia was hit hard by a devastating drought, threatening the lives of 16 million of its people. I founded a non-profit association called “The Ethiopian Children’s Appeal” to raise funds to help school children profoundly affected by the drought. Together, friends and colleagues living in Ethiopia at the time, established a task force to identify a school in a rural area of Ethiopia not far from its capital, Addis Ababa, that was being hit particularly hard by the drought.
We enlisted the help of colleagues from the local Ethiopian Red Cross, the World Food Programme and the Food and Agriculture Organization to locate a school where we could provide continuous support over a sustained period of time to ensure that the children were fed, clothed and had clean water and supplies to enable them to concentrate on their studies.
After several months of research, the Melka Olba school was identified. It is located in a very dusty and dry rural area in the Oromo region located in the jagged and craggy Rift Valley of Ethiopia about three hours’ drive from Addis.
At the time, about 400 students of all ages were attending the school, but many were absent on a daily basis because they were too weak from hunger to walk the long trek to the simple rudimentary cracked cement and tin roof structures with no doors and no windows and no electricity, they call school.
I then started raising awareness in the international community in Addis and abroad. I mobilized funds from the Ethiopian Rotary Club, the International School in Addis Abeba and the French school called the Lycée français. In fact, students from the French Club of the International School gave all the money they had been saving for a study trip to Paris to the Ethiopian Children’s Appeal. Lycee students contributed desks, books and a radio.
I held several bazaars in Geneva and in the US, selling Ethiopian handmade goods, coffee and silver jewellery. It was also an opportunity for me to serve Ethiopian food and to share information about the country, its history and its people.
The bazaars proved extremely popular and since 2002, I have held at least two bazaars a year to raise funds.
In 2002, we were advised by the experts to provide nutritional biscuits for the children since they were so famished from lack of food. The biscuits are the kind that are used by relief organizations during catastrophes and are packed with nutrients and vitamins. They can serve as meal replacements for the children.
That first year, we delivered more than two tons of these biscuits to the school and left them with a year’s supply. The next year, we delivered three tons. We also installed a very simple sand-based water purification system. Over the next two years, school enrolment increased and parents and younger siblings even shared in the bounty since children were allowed to take home biscuits to their families.
In 2004, when the rains came more steadily and the famine was averted, we conferred with the school and were asked to start delivering not only foodstuffs for the children, but school supplies, clothes, and sports equipment.
The Sodoro school has more than 1000 students and is located about an hour away from the Melka Olba school. During a delivery in 2005, we made a surprise visit and provided as many students as we could with the remaining supplies left over from the delivery to the Melka Olba school. Knowing that we could not help all of the students at that time, we delivered only to the HIV/AIDS orphans attending the school.
However, I vowed to raise enough money to be able to help both schools every year. Consequently, in 2006 and 2007, I was able to deliver supplies to both schools. As I and members of the task force buy the goods and supplies to be delivered to the schools and make the deliveries ourselves, we have no administrative costs. All money raised goes directly to help the school children.
The Ethiopian Children’s Appeal contributes to a wonderful effort called Artists for Charity, an organization that has created a home for 16 HIV positive orphans who lost their parents to AIDS.
The founders of the charity are young artists who support the home through the sale of their artwork. They live with the children and have become their surrogate parents. The children (ages 7-16) are disciplined, talented, socially aware and absolutely a joy to be with.
The Ethiopian Children’s Appeal also contributes to a unique NGO that supports girls and their mothers. The Atron Community Centre provides breakfast to mothers and their children to ensure that their children attend school. Girls are also given school uniforms and academic tutoring.