Amplifying the Voice of the Voiceless

Student attends a school funded and built by ZOE graduates in Tharaka, Kenya. Photo courtesy of ZOE.

By Katie Virnig –

Around the world, the United States symbolizes a place where all citizens are given an equal chance to achieve success and prosperity through hard work and perseverance. We call this the American Dream, and it often includes a shared formula: education, career, family, financial security, and physical health. As more pieces of the Dream puzzle fall into place, we, as Christians, look to serve others because God tells us to “defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow” (Isaiah 1:17).

Guided by the love of God, we apply our blueprint for a happy life to underdeveloped regions of the world calling out for support. As missionaries of Christ, we use our voice to “speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute” (Proverbs 31:8). However, sometimes in our desire to help we end up hindering those in need to receive the gift of becoming self-suffient and independent.

Tina Schmidt fell into this well-meaning cycle until a series of circumstances helped her understand how the dynamics behind dependency can rob an individual of God-given dignity and prevent him or her from using their own voice and talents to live out their full potential. 

Schmidt’s journey led to where she is today, Director of Philanthropy for ZOE, a nonprofit focused on equipping orphans with the training and resources to become self-sufficient young adults. Tina and her husband, Paul, embarked upon the process of international adoption in 2004 in Sierra Leone, a country coming out of a brutal civil war.

After two separate trips to Sierra Leone that included an eye-opening exposure to true poverty with all the issues orphans face, the Schmidt’s two children arrived safely to their Minnesota home. Along the way, a calling in Tina was awakened; one that was compelling her to change the appalling conditions she witnessed at the orphanage during the adoption process. “I saw children removed from their communities, siblings ripped apart, and orphaned children exploited. Truly unimaginable scenarios were playing out before my eyes,” explained Schmidt. “But what broke my spirit more than anything was the children’s inability to speak up to authorities. They were being abused but could not say anything or they would be punished. They had no voice.”

In 2009, five years after the adoption, Schmidt found herself on a plane back to Sierra Leone with nine other women. The purpose: open a safe, ethical orphanage home that provided excellent care. By providing orphans with a secure home, food, and education, Schmidt was convinced true change would result. “I remember each of us checking two bags filled with everything we could fit for the kids. We wanted to bring ‘The American Dream’ to Africa in our suitcases,” Schmidt said. “I needed to take action, and this solution made perfect sense to me at the time.”

Schmidt’s first mission upon returning to Sierra Leone was to rescue a group of exploited children living in an orphanage with deplorable conditions. In this “orphanage” of 84 children, only 26 were orphans with no living parents. The remaining children had living parents who had been convinced to send their child to live in the orphanage on the promise of a free education. The proprietor took special care to portray these young people as completely desperate to elicit financial support when American missionaries paid a visit.

“My team and I had learned the proprietor kept 26 parentless children locked up in a room with four concrete walls, no windows, no lights, and no airflow,” explained Schmidt. “The day they were discovered by a City Council official, they were belly down on the concrete floor, attempting to stay cool from the slightest breeze coming from underneath the door. They were extremely sick, malnourished, and abused.”

By exposing the conditions to certain government officials and UNICEF, Schmidt and her team were able to see most of the children in the “orphanage” reunited with their birth families, with the exception of the 26 most vulnerable children who were kept in the proprietor’s care, due to deeply rooted systemic issues. This was when Schmidt began to understand the absence of justice in areas of extreme poverty preyed relentlessly upon the most vulnerable children, silencing their voices. She came to learn that not even her American status or voice could save them.

Within the community, Schmidt began to notice vulnerable children receiving support from relief organizations still faced countless challenges, such as the debilitating stigma as a “sponsored child,” or someone who was not capable of supporting themselves. She came to learn that dependency created injustice for vulnerable children.  Furthermore, the orphans needing support the most were not benefiting because their caregiver could keep the resources provided by donors for themselves or for their own family. With each passing day, Schmidt was losing hope. Questions of sustainability loomed as the orphanage model cost was surpassing $300 per month to support each child, and true change still was not occurring. “It felt like we were putting a Band-aid on a broken leg,” Schmidt described. “The intention was good, but it didn’t address the root cause.”

Rose Kendi, Class of 2020, ZOE Kenya

Meanwhile, back in the U.S., Schmidt and her husband were managing the grief their adoptive children were experiencing from the loss of their home country’s familiarities. She began to see the value for orphaned children – especially older children – to remain in their community. But, given her experience working in Sierra Leone, she knew too well how orphaned children were vulnerable to abuse, trafficking, and exploitation in areas of extreme poverty. The immense frustration fueled Schmidt to switch gears entirely.

In the wake of leaving her position with the orphanage in 2013, Schmidt took a hard look back at her efforts working in areas of extreme poverty over the last decade and noticed a common theme: programs equipped adults as the primary beneficiary with the hope it would spill over to the vulnerable children in the community. However, as she had witnessed, the benefits from building schools, providing education, medical care, food, shelter, clothing, agriculture skills, or vocational training in a community were not trickling down to the most vulnerable children, the true orphans; this group was consistently excluded from reaping the benefits of external support. It became clear to Schmidt that orphans did not need her doing and saying things on their behalf nearly as much as they needed to be able to find their own voice and their own abilities to achieve a good life. Voicelessness and vulnerability did not have to be their permanent state. Of all that was absent in the lives of orphans, the inability to enforce their rights and benefit from their own labor was paramount.

Destined to find a holistic solution addressing all the challenges orphans face in poverty, Schmidt discovered ZOE, an organization that was teaching children how to care for themselves. Three and a half years have passed since Schmidt joined ZOE, and she has become even more confident in ZOE’s holistic empowerment model as a solution to end extreme poverty for orphans around the world.

ZOE, which translates to “life” in Greek, has served over 100,000 orphans living in Kenya, Zimbabwe, Malawi, Liberia, Rwanda, and India in its eleven years of existence with plans to expand into Tanzania in 2019. The program, originally developed by a group of Rwandan social workers frustrated by the cycle of relief and dependency stemming from well-intended relief organizations, has evolved to provide an efficient model whose impact is two-fold: it offers orphans and vulnerable children a safe setting to develop a robust peer support group and allows local communities to stand behind their own young people.

Through facilitating the program within their respective communities, those who once saw these children as a problem are able to develop a new respect for these young people as they bear witness to their empowerment journey. These children find their voice, confidently start businesses, and turn their life around without handouts – building up the economy of their community in the process.

Guided by the mantra of “doing less for the orphans” so they have room to do more for themselves, ZOE stands firm in its design, which includes no orphanages, choosing instead to focus on the young people renting or building their own homes. ZOE also does not give away food, but focuses on empowering orphans to grow and/or buy their own food. There is intentionally one ZOE staff person per 1,000 orphans, facilitating the young people to take the lead in their own journey out of poverty. By promoting independence over dependence, the confidence and pride embodied by each empowerment group is sustained well beyond the three-year program. Instead of donors engaging in a give-a-way program, they provide the small trainings and resources these young people need to realize their own dreams; and all for approximately $8 dollars per month per child. Empowerment is not only more sustainable, it costs less too!

Josephat Kinyua, 2019 Kenya graduate.

“What makes ZOE successful is the fundamental understanding that poverty is a complex issue that requires multiple areas to be addressed simultaneously,” Schmidt explained. ZOE’s empowerment model impacts at least eight major areas of life: food security, secure housing, hygiene and health care, child rights, formal education or vocational training, entrepreneurial and business training, psychological well-being, and spiritual development.

Approximately 85 percent effective, as corroborated by ZOE’s impact assessment data, ZOE’s graduates become sustainably self-sufficient across every area of life. Perhaps the most noticeable of changes is the children’s faith in God. Because of their suffering, many enter the program feeling as though God does not exist, or if he does exist, that, perhaps, he hates them. ZOE staff share with these young people that they are not beyond the love of God, and he, too, has gifted them with talents to share with the world. Over their three years in ZOE’s program, they see and hear the very best of the Gospel and, as a result, many complete the program as strong followers of Christ – though ZOE serves all children equally regardless of their beliefs.

During her most recent ZOE vision trip to Kenya, Schmidt led a small group from her Minnesota church. Upon an evening reflection, one traveler framed what they witnessed that day by saying: “Poverty is people without God. Before ZOE they felt empty, and now God has filled them.” That simple comment jogged Schmidt’s memory back to her days of filling her suitcases with the American Dream, and it served as an affirmation that she was now filling her suitcase with the right things: her personal belongings and a notebook to record transformation stories of ZOE children in their own voice. She brings to the U.S., lessons from Africa with a new understanding of Proverbs 31:8 by speaking up to amplify the newly empowered voices of ZOE children as they speak for themselves. 

Katie Virnig is a freelance writer who is inspired to influence positive change through meaningful storytelling. She believes the eradication of poverty, without creating dependency, is possible in her lifetime. If you would like to learn more about ZOE’s empowerment model, visit WeAreZOE.org or contact Gaston Warner, gaston@wearezoe.org.

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