*photo courtesy of AHOPE website
As I have posted about extensively before, I have been working very hard on a small organization I created called The Sweet Dreams Project, which I began last year for my Senior Interest Project at school. The purpose of a Senior Interest Project is to explore an area of study you're interested in, and use the information you gain to somehow improve yourself or the community. It can really be anything, and of any size- you get 0.5 credit for it from the school, and it really polishes off college applications. Mine, however, has become one of the big focuses of my application, since it's so big and so important to me. Through it, I want to benefit the AIDS orphanage AHOPE in Addis Ababa, both through donation drives and raising awareness about how other people can help.
I began my Sweet Dreams Project last year by holding a drive through my brother's elementary school, collecting pajamas for the AHOPE kids. To my delighted amazement, I received over 200 pairs, and probably could have collected more if I thought I had room to bring them all when we went to Ethiopia. (I have more info on the drive here
.) We managed to bring almost every single pair we found decent enough to bring with us. I know that I haven't yet talked about the experience, and it was such a defining moment of my life that it has taken me a while to come up with what to say. Since it's a Friday with no homework that needs to be immediately completed, I thought I would do that now.
On Friday, our last full day in Addis, we went to visit AHOPE. Sidisse and Gelila, who run the program, knew who I was right away (they said they'd be expecting me) and welcomed my family very warmly. They led us into Sidisse's office, which was small but cozy, and, after offering us seats, proceeded to tell us about the program they run there.
They explained a bit about how AHOPE was founded and how it is currently managed. It has a headquarters in Washington state, where donations are collected and subsequently sent to AHOPE Ethiopia; this goes to fund AHOPE's biggest projects, like building structures and buying necessary supplies. Because AHOPE lives solely on donations, it is, needless to say, not the most wealthy of institutions (I'll talk about this more a little later.) They were very grateful to accept the two big garbage bags filled with pajamas and a few other toy donations we had brought for them, explaining that receiving items like this was relatively rare since the money donations often go towards funding education and building materials.
We were then taken to see the children. What an (I can't even think of what adjective to put here) experience. I know this sounds so cliche, but it really makes you think differently about the magnitude of opportunity and even materialistc possessions that we really don't appreciate enough. The children were all sitting in front of a TV, a few broken and dirty toys scattered here and there. Their clothes were ill-fitting and far from clean. They all seemed to be some degree of sick, with molluscum and runny noses, and the air smelled
of poor health. Everyone was doing their best to remedy the status of the children, I could tell; but it is undeniable that they needed so much more.
This included, most visibly, attention. From the start, my family was completely swarmed by little kids- one boy in particular jumped into my arms when we walked in and didn't let me put him down for the smallest fraction of a second. All the kids had fun showing us Polaroid pictures of all the AHOPE children posted on an old bulletin board, proudly reciting the names that were written underneath. They burst into peals of excited laughter when I repated back to them the names they so confidently informed me of.
After seeing the younger kids' compound, we visited the old kids' compound. Many of the children were away at the public school, but those who remained (the kindergartners and some older kids who were for some reason not going to school that day) were eating lunch. When we were taken in, we were met by stares; I could see the wheels of thought churning in their minds, trying to figure out what a white family with children, accompanied by a little girl who looked much like themselves, was doing there. When they learned that we were American, they excitedly began to practice their English on us, smilingly informing us of their names and ages in heavy accents.
We later saw some of the bedrooms, which were cramped, cement-floored rooms crowded with bunk beds. One of the most touching moments of my life occured then, when I saw a little girl playing with two of the rattiest, broken Barbies I had ever seen. In most American households, those Barbies would have seen the trash long ago, but this child was playing more animatedly with these dolls than many children do with much newer, perfect-condition toys. It was certainly very eye-opening.
Lastly, we saw the kindergarten classroom, which was a narrow room consisting of about twelve desks and some teaching supplies. We met some older girls who had been to New York through an AHOPE for Children-sponsored program, and they were interested to hear that we lived so close to that city. Seeing the classroom and the kids and learning that AHOPE often has volunteers from the States has inspired me to someday return and volunteer my time and efforts as a teacher there. I can really see myself doing that out of college or graduate school, before or after I do the Peace Corps.
When we left, Gelila and Sidisse thanked me for the millionth time for what I did. I do now think that the Sweet Dreams project made a difference, and I'm beyond glad that I did it. Before, it seemed to me that AHOPE was such a well-known institution that the might not need the pajamas, but I know now where the donation money really goes. Although it's great that buildings are being built and education is being funded, it's clear that they can really benefit from better clothes and toys, too. My mom said afterwards that she wished that ALL the donations we had brought we had given to AHOPE, because the donations of everything they had was quite a bit worse that that of our agency's orphanage.
I can't say that I'm proud of myself for what I did, because the discrepency between what I did and what they deserve is much too big. It wasn't generosity; it was justice! It was as much a gift to me as to them, meeting these ruthlessly optimistic, incredible children.
Nevertheless, I was glad to help, and happy that I could make a difference, however small, in their lives. The ladies wanted my contact information so we could keep in touch; they were very pleased to hear that I wanted to do more for them, and I know that any more donations I collect or persuade other people to give whill be gratefully received and used.
Therefore, I have thrown myself head-over-heels into the project this year. I have already spent too much of my time typing this and probably too much of yours by making you read it all, but I can assure you now that the Sweet Dreams Project will be BIGGER and BETTER. More info will be coming in a post in the near future!