In July of 2014, we took a huge leap of faith and registered elementary students to attend Thrive Academy in Debre Birhan, Ethiopia. These children are considered to be the poorest of the poor and would never have the opportunity to attend school without our help. The children are orphans, some being raised by their siblings and some are being raised by "Care" Moms. The school was built to take in 70 students, but on this day, over 140 kids stood before us needing an education.
The first student who stood before us was Daniel Ashenafi. This boy was obviously afraid, hungry and hopeless. As we were looking into his eyes, we could see hundreds of other eyes looking to us for help right behind him.
Since many of the children are orphans, we were having trouble determining their ages. One of the best ways we have found is to look at their teeth. Here we see that Daniel has lost his two front baby teeth so we can estimate his age. We think he is about 8 years old here.
Graduation Day in June is always the best opportunity to meet some of the community and celebrate the children. Daniel graduated at the top of his class. He is not only the first child we met when opening the school, but he is the #1 student academically.
We asked if we could visit Daniel's home because we heard that his mother and father were very sick. After walking through the fields and farm area for about 1-2 miles, we finally arrived at his home.
We had no idea that Daniel had a little brother named Besufekad. We were told that if something happened to his sick parents, Daniel would raise his little brother.
As we were leaving Daniel's home, we noticed this writing on a gate. There are many other very poor children in this area where Daniel lives. He was concerned that they were not going to get the opportunity to go to school like him and he was especially concerned for his little brother, Besufakad. Daniel asked his principal, Andy, if he could have a piece of chalk everyday. Daniel is now teaching the younger children in his community on this gate with a simple piece of chalk.
Contrary to popular belief, Debre Birhan Ethiopia is very cold. The temperature at night is always between 30-40 degrees and the daytime high is only in the 60's.
We provided the gift of warmth through these beautiful blue hoodies. The children never take them off and I noticed that they actually sleep in them as well to keep warm at night.
The children's feet are growing rapidly now that they are getting proper daily nourishment. Daniel and the other students were cutting the toes out of their shoes. Many of the children had large wounds on their feet and could hardly walk to and from school. We provided each student with new sturdy Crocs to protect their feet. Daniel loves his new shoes!
Every year, we travel to Debre Birhan to check on the student's progress and bring them new t-shirts and gifts from their American sponsors. Daniel is growing so fast and has a very gentle and loving spirit.
We lowered our heads and went into the living quarters. Daniel's home is about a 9 x 9 area that has dirt floors, no lights or heat and a cooking pot on a fire in the corner. The family literally lays on the dirt floor behind this curtain to rest in the very dark night. The walls are made of manure and mud applied to sticks. We are so so spoiled in the US.
Daniel has soared to the top of his class year after year. We asked if we could sit in on his class while Daniel took his English Test.
This is the English test that Daniel took. We have shown this test to other English speaking students Daniel's age and they struggled to take the test.
Daniel is definitely an over achiever. He scored a 28 out of 25 correct on his test.
I guess he answered all of the extra credit questions as well. We are so proud of his determination. He is always thinking!
School pictures are always a fun day at Thrive Academy. The children received new red jackets for Christmas this year. We ask them to smile when we take their photos but the word for smile in Amharic sounds like the English word "Suck". We have lots of giggles and laughter.
Daniel finally got his wish. His little brother Besufekad is now enrolled at Thrive Academy. We watch the two of them walk home holding hands. Daniel is such a good big brother.
Our sponsors in the U.S. grow to love these children as they watch them grow. Many sponsors want to go and meet their child or children they sponsor. Sue has sponsored Daniel from day 1 and has prayed for Besufekad to be able to come to Thrive Academy for years so she could sponsor both of these brothers. Her dream came true and she was able to travel to Ethiopia to meet these precious boys.
Sue is an amazing artist and quickly found out that Daniel has the same love and passion for art. This was a special moment to watch the two artists working together.
After learning that Daniel and Besufekad's father was no longer with them, Sue wanted to check on Daniel's mother's health. We traveled to her home and found that she was very sick. HIV is a horrible disease that is very common in this area. Our hearts were broken for this brave mother trying to raise her boys alone with an awful disease.
Now that the new school is built, the boys are literally Thriving at Thrive Academy, Debre Birhan, Ethiopia.
Everyday Daniel has been asking if his brother could come to Thrive Academy. Now that we have acquired 10 acres to build the new school, Daniel's dream is about to come true. The two brothers will finally be together, learning and becoming future world changers.
When we met Misganaw for the very first time, we saw the serious frown on his face and knew that he was deeply troubled.
When we returned a few months later to visit the school for Christmas, we were invited into Misganaw's home to meet his Mom. She quickly ran out to meet us and thanked us over and over for allowing Misganaw to come to school at Thrive Academy.
Misganaw showed us the mat that he and his mother sleep on. They huddle together to keep warm at night. The nightime temperature in Debre Birhan is between 35° to 48° degrees. We stood in his home shivering and knew that this was his everyday struggle.
We were invited into Misganaw's home and quickly realized that there was not enough room for us or the small family that lived there. The fire is constantly burning indoors to cook and keep warm. It is like having a campfire in your home without ventilation. The family sleeps in the soot on the dirt floor and the black soot covers the dirt walls.
As you can see from the school pictures, Misganaw is now not merely surviving, but he is "Thriving". He is such a joy to his teachers and fellow classmates.
Misganaw's mom, Desta, began to cry and thank us for allowing her son to attend Thrive Academy. She told us that just weeks prior to opening our school, the family was starving so she had to make a decision to give away her 3 year old daughter to a stranger who could maybe feed her. Desta was days away from giving Misganaw away as well. This mom is very sick and struggling to survive but now her son is strong and healthy due to the daily nutritional meals at Thrive Academy.
When we enrolled the new Kindergarten class in 2015, we were sent pictures of the new students. Everyone overlooked this girl because she was so angry and distant. She has obviously been hurt and didn't trust anyone. Her eyes told a thousand stories. When we offered the opportunity to sponsor these children in the new class, several people said they didn't want the one with the evil eyes.
We returned back a couple of months later with Christmas gifts and beautiful blue hoodies for each child. As we took this picture, we could see that things had not changed in her eyes. She was still very distant.
While all of the other children were playing, we found Menen sitting alone along the wall with her arms crossed over her legs. She was obviously trying to protect herself from something or someone. We all began to try to include her and bring her some sort of joy and safety. Some stories can not be shared and are extremely private so we all began to pray for this angel.
Some of our team were making balloon hats for the children and we made sure that Menen got the first one. When we turned around, there she sat along the wall, distant and alone. When we returned to America, we asked for someone to love, pray and sponsor this precious girl. Charlene stepped up and committed to love and pray daily for Menen. Even the teachers and staff in Ethiopia expressed concern for her.
The following year when we returned for the Christmas celebration, we noticed that Menen has a BFF-best friend forever-named Tsion. They walk home together, sit by each other in the cafeteria and play little girl games. What a difference!! I understand that Menen now goes into Principal Andy's office everyday before school to say hi and see if he has a treat for her. She is learning to trust for the first time and it shows on her little face.
When we returned the following year, our friends and interpreters, Dereje and Dr Talagie ran to me and said, "Mama T, look at Menen!!" I didn't even recognize this angel. It is amazing what consistent love and education can provide for these precious children.
Guess who wanted to play the part of the angel in our Nativity scene? Menen was so excited to play the part and spread her wings far and wide for all of us to see the great transformation.
Menen was all smiles in her most recent school picture. We didn't even have to ask her to smile, her smile now comes from deep within. She is safe at Thrive Academy and is growing into a beautiful confident young lady.