My journey into advocacy for children with special needs can at best be described as serendipitous. This is more so because prior to the life-changing encounter I will proceed to recount very soon, I knew nothing about Down syndrome or any kind of rare condition, special needs or inclusion, I mean I knew absolutely nothing. But I took a bold step and trusted God to make the path clearer. I can say with great confidence that He is doing just that.
So the story starts a few years ago when I had witnessed the bullying of a very young boy who was supposed to be in school, like other children of his age, but serving as an apprentice in a cobbler's shop.
There was something different about him. He had a flattened face, especially the bridge of the nose, an almond-shaped eye that slant up and a short neck.
I had tried to stop the bullying with very little success. And so with a well-channelled irritation stemming from the fact that I could not help him despite my efforts to, and a determination to do something about it, I carried out some extensive desk research to ascertain why the boy looked so different. In many countries in Africa, children with special needs are hidden or killed. There are very little resources or education around special needs kids.
My findings did not only open me to several other kinds of rare conditions and their causes, but it also revealed that the young boy had Down syndrome. That experience and the desire to help people like him going forward gave birth to The Nechamah Foundation; a not-for-profit organisation, set up to advocate for the inclusion of children with special needs especially down syndrome while influencing the society towards their protection.
This journey has given my life a whole new perspective, a passion which I find very fulfilling.
A little over two months into the fellowship program as an Urban Promise International Fellow, and a master’s degree student (M.A, Organizational Leadership at the Eastern University), I now wish that I had somehow learnt previously what I am learning now. If I had, perhaps the journey would have been a little smoother. But thanks to those experiences, and the numerous problems I and my team have had to solve with little or no resources, they make me appreciate the journey even better because I am able to relate with class activities and teachings on a very great level and especially during discussions in school.
I have learnt and still learning that mistakes are not to be avoided. However, learning quickly from the mistake(s) and how we bounce back from them, is what propels the universal trajectory of growth and development. Each day, I am reminded that several lives are dependent on my being resilient and several others draw inspiration from what I do and in who I am.
Those thoughts invigorate me.
It is easy to say: “that’s not my child”, “that’s not my community”, “not my problem”, “not my world”. But the issues surrounding children with special needs, speaks to problems that must be jointly solved; responsibilities that must be considered critically and shared. In all of our campaigns and advocacy, there are those who see the need and respond accordingly by supporting the cause in kind, providing resources to enable us reach more people; I consider them heroes of humanity. My drive has always been to see that children with special needs especially ones who are economically disadvantaged are able to live up to their full potentials.
I want to be remembered as that individual, who from a deep sense of conviction, thrived in a path that is least trodden, was a voice to the most vulnerable and marginalized; children and teenagers with special needs such as Down syndrome, who helped them become their highest self and to live a life that is full, significant, happy and interesting.
I am from Liberia, a small country on the West African coast of Africa. Liberia is the size of the state of Tennessee but with a population of 5 million people. Liberia is the poorest country in the world with 85% of its population living on less than $2 a day. 50% of Liberia’s population is under the age of 20 while 65% of children of primary school going age are out of school. Liberia underwent a civil war for over 14 years that led to the loss of many lives and property. As a result of the war, the country’s entire economy system was broken down, infrastructures were destroyed, and the education and health sectors were greatly affected.
I was born to a low-income family near Liberia’s capital-Monrovia and am the fourth of five children. I grew up in a Christian home where my parents exhibited strong Christian principles. My family housed 19 members consisting of cousins and other relatives and I shared a room with six boys.
I began my education during the period of the civil war and struggled to complete high school in 2006, graduating top of my class-Valedictorian. After my graduation from high school, I was very passionate to continue my education to college, but had to desperately wait for four years because of lack of financial support. During the period of waiting, I met Rev. E. Walker, the person who later changed my life. Rev. Walker became my mentor and helped me to discover, and develop my potential. Rev. Walker always told me that I could be the best I wanted to be only if I stayed focused. Rev. Walker shaped my purpose on earth through the interactions he always had with me. I finally enrolled at the University of Liberia in 2010. To support myself, I took on a teaching job at a primary school, and did other paid chores over the weekends in order to raise money for my college tuition. I eventually graduated with a BPA degree in Public Administration in 2017.
With a deep quest for youth development, I resigned my job as Administrative Assistant of Libra Sanitation, Liberia’s biggest Waste Management Company, to volunteer at CELDI-Liberia as one of its industrious staff. CELDI-Liberia is UrbanPromise first West-African Site founded by Rev. Walker in 2016. It is a children and youth focus group which exists to change Liberia… one child at a time. It does so by developing children from vulnerable communities, breaking the circle of poverty through education, and raising a new generation of servant leaders that can proactively transform and serve their communities with distinction.
While serving at CELDI-Liberia, I was given the opportunity to travel to the US, in 2018 to further my education. I am the first Liberian Fellow at Urban Promise International, and the first member of my family pursuing a Master. I am enrolled in the Organizational Leadership program at Eastern University in Pennsylvania, which is equipping me with the relevant experiences and the education needed to be an effective leader.
Upon completion of my studies, I will return as a capacity builder to expand the work of CELDI-Liberia. My dream is to reach a child, raise a leader and restore a community. In order to achieve this dream, I hope to build a school for underprivileged children in CELDI’s afterschool program and the community. At this school, the children will be equipped with the skills necessary for academic achievement, life management, personal growth and servant leadership.
Currently, I have started fundraising for the school project. The project will cost $62,000 for the construction of the structure of the school, and its operational cost for the first year.
You can get involved: by praying for the ministry, donating to the school project, sponsoring a child at $33, help to friend raise for the ministry or join our mailing list for an update on the ministry. Or better still, you can invite me to your small group at church, create speaking engagements or provide professional training opportunities. Donations can be made at UrbanPromise International/CELDI at P.O Box 156 Pennsauken, NJ 08110 or online at www.urbanpromiseinternational.org/celdi. I can be reached at +1 302-415-9709 or firstname.lastname@example.org
By Bruce Main, President
When Jeff Peterson asked to accompany me on a trip to Malawi 2 years ago, I knew God was up to something significant. It did not take long to realize we shared a desire to develop a viable businesses solution in economically impoverished communities. Bringing this in to fruition entails merging Jeff's business talents and philanthropic passion with the UrbanPromise International's vision.
Jeff's day job is owner and operator of the iconic Geoffrey's Restaurant of Malibu, consistently ranked as one of the most picturesque and fine dining places off the California Coast. Perched on the seaside cliffs of Malibu, overlooking the majestic Pacific Ocean. Geoffrey’s is home to Jeff, a self-built entrepreneur. His vision for kindness and truth is embodied in his restaurant and staff.
Many Hollywood celebrities, entertainers, international dignitaries, politicians are regular patrons that enjoy the peaceful surroundings and escapism that Geoffrey’s offers.
Jeff’s charities and charitable causes, helping others achieve their goals, providing people with an opportunity to live prosperous lives is extremely close to Jeff’s heart.
"In my youth I thought life was an all you can eat pie eating contest," he confesses. "But no matter how much I tried to fill myself I was never satisfied." So what is Jeff's remedy for perpetual consumption? "Helping others achieve their goals, and dreams is what I believe is God's purpose for my life."
As Jeff walked through Malawian villages, having the visual and talking to young leaders, villages where families exist on less than a dollar a day, this wrenching at Jeff’s heart strings, he asked himself what he could do to for these families and children to prosper? What kind of businesses could turn a profit and become an economic force for good in the community?
Currently Jeff works with a couple of Malawian leaders who desire to create viable businesses. Using his own money, Jeff has provided the start-up capital to launch a chicken business and a corn mill. Both projects are with Urban Promise International and affiliated ministries. These endeavors are particularly exciting as Jeff can also provide guidance and mentoring for these young entrepreneurs from the ground up.
"Much of my success can be attributed to others taking the time and energy mentoring me in business," adds Jeff. "In turn I find great happiness giving back to others."
Jeff is now challenging other business men and women to use their talents to help others break the cycle of poverty. Charitable gifts are critical and important, but making investments in viable businesses can provide long term resources for families and communities.
I was born into a family of three, and I lost my parents while still young. My dad died when I was 9 and my mom when I was 16. Life became hard and I lost all hope of continuing with school. I finally got a chance to go to school because family members and other well-wishers agreed to pay my tuition fees. However, my sister never got the opportunity because she was a girl child. I was given the opportunity because I am a man and my community valued me as someone who would have more to offer something to the community and family than my sister who would one day get married. My sister is now 23 and did not finish even high school. She can’t get a job, and she can’t go back to high school because of her age. Seeing the struggle my sister has gone through gave me a passion to help women in my community.
I believe women in Malawi should have an equal opportunity to go to school, have food, and have shelter just like any other man can have,
Voices Awake Organization is creating that platform, and it’s a privilege to be part of the change.
This November, I was approved by the UPI board to launch Voices Awake Ventures. This is a social enterprise that will use a mini bus business to provide financial support to Voices Awake Organization.
I believe business is a good tool for the sustainability of Voices Awake Organization. I am passionate about business and ministry. I have got over five years of experience in the Public transportation business in Malawi, and I want to use the same experience as a ministry at Voices Awake. Voices Awake Organization believes in sustainability to achieve its full potential and effectiveness.
This is important because with this enterprise, Voices Awake would be able to support its programs including:
• Paying tuition fees for the girls in the girl empowerment program
• Providing food for the girls living at the Voices Awake Girls home
• Paying salaries to the staff
• Providing Micro-loans to women
The potiential of this enterprise is exciting! Not only could this enterprise bless Voices Awake, but when this model proves successful, it could be a tool for our other UPI ministries in Malawi to join in and build a more sustainable source of revenue for their ministries.
It will take $25 000 to launch this enterprise and buy the mini buses. If you are interested in supporting this venture or talking to me about it, I’d love to meet with you.
My name is Gilbert Mfitundinda, an UrbanPromise International Fellow from southwestern Uganda. I was born to a family so poor that even the poor people in our community looked down on us. At a young age, I did not think that the future had anything to offer me. As the eighth child in my family, I had seen my siblings drop out of school. I was so hopeless.
My family survived on less than $1 per day. Life was a daily struggle. Our house was a makeshift house made of mud. I slept on a mat on a dirt floor and covered myself with another mat. Mattresses were unheard of and blanket never existed in my family’s dictionary.
At the age of 7, I was invited by my local church and community leaders to participate in a child sponsorship organization called Compassion International—who later changed my life. Compassion have me a mattress to sleep on and a blanket that I could use to cover myself. This was the first mattress that my family ever held.
Can you imagine how might have felt having on mattress in a family of ten? (Eight kids plus mom and dad). The blanket and the mattress became the most treasured items in our house at that time. Since Compassion had technically given the mattress to me, I had a bigger share on it.
However, my parents could not entrust me with the only treasure in our house. I was still young and irresponsible. I did bed wetting almost every night. When my parents justified why I could not use the mattress, I had no objection. My parents decided to keep the mattress until I was old enough to use it. For a period of time, whoever felt sick in my family was the one to use the mattress. It was a shared treasure.
During this season of Thanksgiving, I would urge you to take a moment and ponder your blessings. Can you name them one by one? It is easy to take a small thing like having a mattress for granted, yet it could mean the whole world to a child in Malawi, Uganda or any other developing country. I would also like to request you pray for a child longing for a mattress or blanket sometime in his/her lifetime. Perhaps you could be an answer to the prayers of this child.
Gilbert Mfitundinda, Founder and CEO of Love Restoration—a non-profit organization that he started to help his community. Gilbert holds a degree in information technology from Uganda Christian University. He is currently pursuing a master’s degree in organizational leadership at Eastern University in Pennsylvania, USA.