How to become an ambassador for the ‘Nation of Orphans’
By Laura J. Cummings
“I quit!” Megan Garcia shouted, launching her useless, frozen MP3 player into the snowy mountainside. Although she was tantalizingly close to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro, her physical and mental fatigue made taking even one more step seem impossible.
As a porter came to assist her, he reminded her of why she was on Africa’s tallest mountain in the first place—the kids. The ones who smiled so bright and had so little. The dreamers who had no way to reach their “impossible” dreams.
“I told myself, ‘Don’t give up. You’re doing this for the orphans—you cannot let them down,’” recalled Garcia, an Estero resident who made the climb in September 2022 with Fort Myers-based Haven of Hope International. This small group of ambassadors carried the flag for the “Nation of Orphans” to the snow-capped summit at 19,340 feet.
Worldwide, there are 153 million orphans. If they were a nation, they would be the world’s ninth largest country. They have no representation and, often, no hope. Statistics show 99 percent will never be adopted. That’s why Haven of Hope focuses on the ones left behind. With a flagship orphanage in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, Haven of Hope aims to bring its proven model of orphan care to other orphan homes around the globe, including three near Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania and Kenya.
Visiting those children prior to the climb is what fueled Garcia to pick herself up when she wanted to quit.
“With what little they had, they had so much love to give,” she said. “They were my motivation to get to the summit.”
‘I’m not a hiker.’
Garcia is the unlikeliest of mountain climbers.
“I’m a complete newbie,” she said. “I’ve never climbed. I’m not a hiker. I had no experience whatsoever.”
Seeking to do charitable work, Garcia connected with Haven of Hope Founder and President Alice Sweet through a mutual friend. She thought she might help with a fundraiser.
“The first time I met Alice, she said, ‘So, do you want to climb a mountain?’” Garcia recalled. Her initial reaction was, “I don’t think so!”
Sweet encouraged Garcia with her own newbie experience climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro in 2018. Like Garcia, it was her first real “hike.” Now Haven of Hope is planning another climb in September 2023 “for those seeking an expedition of a lifetime that will create lasting change.”
Garcia agreed to prayerfully consider Sweet’s proposal. In her job as a laser technician at The Laser Lounge Spa in Estero, she soon found herself in a staff meeting centered on ideas for the company’s annual charitable giving.
“I said, ‘Why don’t we support Haven of Hope, and I’ll climb this mountain,’” Garcia suggested. “They were 100 percent on board.”
Climbers who tackle Mt. Kilimanjaro as part of the Klimbing for Kids campaign are asked to raise at least $2,500 in donations with proceeds going to the “Futures of Hope” vocational sponsorship program enabling older children to attend high school, college or vocational programs—so they don’t end up back on the streets once they reach adulthood. Without an education, nearly 70 percent of orphans will turn to a life of crime, and 10-15 percent will attempt suicide because they have no hope, Sweet said.
Laser Lounge organized two Tox-A-Thon events—one in Estero and one in Naples—where staff donated their time to do Xeomin injections, with the product donated by manufacturer Merz Pharmaceuticals. They more than doubled the initial fundraising goal of $10,000, netting $22,000 for Haven of Hope in two days. This year, Laser Lounge hopes to raise even more through Tox-A-Thon events and one-week-only specials, said Estero Office Manager Christy Bellstrom.
“The entire staff at Laser Lounge was a tremendous support to Megan and to the cause,” Sweet said. “Orphans have a big place in the hearts of the owners, Jonathan and April Sigg, so they were thrilled to get behind making a big impact in their lives. During their two Tox-A-Thons, they invited me to share how the proceeds would make orphans’ dreams come true, and their clients were so very generous!”
Klimbing for Kids donations provided scholarships for 34 young people in Kenya and 17 young people in Bolivia last year.
“One orphanage director thanked us with tears in her eyes,” Sweet said. “They tell these children to study hard and to dream and hope for a better future, but when they graduate, there was never enough money to send them to college. That’s why we developed the Futures of Hope Program.”
The fundraising goal for this year’s climb is $200,000 with half of that earmarked for continuing scholarships, plus support of new partner homes in Tanzania, Peru and Trinidad. The other $100,000 will be designated for a “Dream Center” in Ruiru, Kenya, where students desperately need space to study and do vocational training.
“Their current building for study is a 20-by-20 wooden structure with one electrical outlet and no glass in the windows with just picnic tables and benches,” Sweet said. “The 45-plus residents of the home are currently sharing one computer and monitor.”
Development of the Dream Center will be further supported by upcoming fundraisers in the Miromar Lakes community in honor of Paul Cecere, who organized the first Haven of Hope fundraising gala at Miromar Lakes in 2018 and strongly supported Haven of Hope until his passing in 2021.
“Paul Cecere’s personal vision was challenging young people to become successful adults, and he loved Africa,” Sweet said.
‘Their future is worth the climb.’
The three orphanages Garcia visited in Africa were each unique in structure but shared some commonalities in need.
“One was rural, one was in the city, and one was more self-sustaining like growing up on a farm,” Garcia said. “Some orphanages don’t have running water, and they don’t have enough beds—they’re sleeping three kids in a bunk. Despite those conditions, one of the children told me that the orphanage was ‘like heaven.’ It was very humbling.”
Along with the beautiful, smiling orphans, there’s something else, less beautiful, that is stuck in Garcia’s mind—the inadequacy of the bathrooms at the Watu Wa Maana Childrens Centre in Kenya.
“The bathrooms just bothered me,” Garcia said. “It’s cement walls, no lighting, and they get a bucket of water to wash with. The children don’t know any different, but I want them to have a comfortable place to be able to shower and use the facilities.”
At the orphanage in Tanzania, many of the children are girls rescued from becoming child brides of the Maasai tribe.
“They’re doing female circumcision—genital mutilation—on these girls,” Garcia lamented. “One girl was rescued and is now 19. She said, ‘By now, I would’ve had at least seven children.’ She is a social worker and went back to help with the children in the orphanage.”
Along with meeting physical needs for partner homes, Haven of Hope also trains orphanage operators and staff in trauma-informed care to help the children recover. The faith-based organization’s motto is: “Rescue. Love. Restore. Equip.”
Sweet hopes more Southwest Florida residents will join this year’s Klimbing for Kids fundraiser in September. As grueling as the trek is, it’s also rewarding. Pushing oneself to the limit and overcoming all the mental and physical challenges to reach the summit is symbolic of each orphan’s personal journey toward their dream.
“I wouldn’t climb Kilimanjaro just for my own satisfaction,” Sweet said. “The children’s stories are what get you up the mountain when it gets difficult. One of the things we say is, ‘Their future is worth the climb.’”
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Want to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro?
Go ‘Klimbing for Kids’ with Haven of Hope International September 16-29, 2023. Get all the details at www.havenofhopeintl.org/klimbing-for-kids-2023-2.
Can’t climb, but still want to support the Nation of Orphans? There are plenty of other ways to support Haven of Hope’s mission. Sponsor a child or an orphan home, support building projects or donate to programs helping restore traumatized children and equipping them to reach their dreams.
Find out more at: Havenofhopeintl.org.
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