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Mila Koumpilova, Published February 22 2009

Church launching effort to help boys in Ethiopian orphanage

Theresa and David Held returned from Ethiopia with a beautiful baby girl, an admiration for her countrymen’s scrappy spirit and awareness that Western adoptions help only a tiny fraction of the country’s

6 million orphans.

It was summer 2007, and the Fargo couple resolved to do more.

They soon found out two other families at their church, Fargo’s Olivet Lutheran, had recently adopted infants from Ethiopia. Earlier this year, the three couples spearheaded a project to help an entire orphanage in the east African nation. The ramshackle all-boys facility is a very different place from the inviting, Western-funded care center where the Helds picked up their daughter, Maya.

Today, the church is launching its long-distance “adoption” of 130 boys and young men at Kolfe Youth Orphanage. Church members are calling it Connection Day.

“Sponsorship just sounded so sterile,” said the rev. Kris Gorden. “Connection holds more of what we want to be about.”

Just as the Helds, Nicole Anderson and her husband, Jared, traveled to Africa to start a family. They found themselves profoundly transformed by its residents’ warmth and hopefulness in the face of abject poverty.

“Life as we knew it was over,” said Nicole, who has two sons from Ethiopia and one from South Africa.

For some time, David Held followed the work of a Christian-based nonprofit named Children’s HopeChest. Since the early 1990s, the group has worked with orphans in Russia, where studies say 70 percent of those from orphanages resort to crime or prostitution to survive.

The group enlisted some 100 churches across the United States to sponsor orphanages there and in Swaziland. When the organization expanded its work into Ethiopia last fall, the Helds had to get involved. Gorden and the other adoptive families promptly got on board.

Olivet picked Kolfe – a government-run orphanage and a one-time dumping ground – because its residents seemed to need help the most desperately. The boys there are older, so their chances of getting adopted are miniscule. There are no beds, no meat in their meager diet and no money for school.

But HopeChest President Tom Davis said the boys were nothing like he expected: “They were the most well-mannered, kind, gentle young men I met in my life. The thing I kept hearing over and over was how much they wanted to go to school.”

The Olivet group hopes help from their church will give the boys a better shot at an independent life as adults. On Connection Day, the church’s roughly 1,500 families will be able to “adopt” one of the boys. Their $34 monthly checks will go toward food, medicine, school, and college fees and supplies.

A group from Olivet will make an annual trip to the orphanage. Until then, sponsors commit to write to the boys monthly. Says David Helm, “You let this child know, ‘We’re here for you. We support you and believe in you. We’re the family you never had.’ ”

How to help:

- Nonmembers of Fargo’s Olivet Lutheran Church are welcome to help with sponsoring Kolfe Youth Orphanage. Call David Held at (701) 330-2478 or the Rev. Kris Gorden at (701) 235-6603.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Mila Koumpilova at (701) 241-5529