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Kathe Padilla wasn't the only person to read a Arizona Daily Star article about orphan children starving in Zambia.  But she may have been the only one who went from reading about it to flying to Zambia and setting up an orphanage and school that she now proudly calls the best primary school in Zambia, with a former student who scored the highest in the district in the national exams.

The Chishawasha Children’s Home now houses seventy children, educates 120 in its primary school, teaches practical skills of farming, sewing, and carpentry,  and provides support to many of the grandmothers who care for children outside the shelter.  To supplement donor funding, children and staff raise chickens, grow food, create crafts and run the only rest stop between Lusaka and the largest Game Park in Zambia.    CCHZ is a model for functional success in a difficult environment, where one out of eleven children die before their fifth birthday.

So why aren't there a hundred, a thousand children’s homes?  If we know how to solve the problems of children starving and dying, why is it still going on?

Despite the CCHZ's success, finding funding to expand is a struggle.   Donors like to build buildings, but paying for teacher salaries year after year is another story.    Zambia is an impoverished country, but providing a quality education is not necessarily cheap.  Anything that needs to be transported is immediately expensive, as gasoline runs $14-15/gallon.   Many Zambian schools run in shifts, with children getting only a few hours of education per day.  CCHZ’s school begins with breakfast at 7:30 AM and continues with a full school day from 8 to 4, including lunch.  The teachers take their jobs seriously, unlike some of the government teachers the children later run into at the high schools, who may come in drunk or hit on the girl students.  The cost per CCHZ student is about $1400 per year, which is one fifth of the per-student funding in Arizona, but almost twice the per capita income of Zambia.

Kathe knows she cannot rescue every child.  Her hope is that the graduates of her school will become a nucleus of educated, capable Zambians who will carry on the work of building their country.  

Focus on the individual is more than just a strategy.  Its a way to carry on in the face of otherwise overwhelming problems.   Caring about children in Zambia becomes much brighter, and deeper, when it means caring about Charles Masho who proudly plans for college, about Monique Liani the enthusiastic reader, about Peggy Njlovu the creative seamstress.  The children, relationships with individual children and watching them succeed and grow is what sustains those involved in the work.    

Early on in planning for the Zambian Children’s Fund, Padilla was speaking to a friend about the starving children and the need to provide food.  Her friend asked, ‘But what will you do after you feed them?  Turn them back out on the street?’    Padilla made the decision to commit to taking care of the children she could take in as if they were her own, to give them ‘everything I tried to give my own children’.  So the young persons who graduate from the CCHZ school also get funds to go to high school or skills training, and those who pass the competitive exams are helped to attend college.  So far every adult graduate of ZCF has found a job or entered university.

Though the work has been rewarding and the children successful, its been far from easy.  Padilla has seen several well-meaning individuals come to Zambia and give up and go home, faced with logistical hurdles and a depth of pain they just weren’t prepared for.    

The hardest part by far, is turning people away.

When people in the area realized Kathe couldn’t turn away an orphan child, they kept coming to the shelter and bringing her babies and small children, until the three bedroom house had twenty-five children in it and the government threatened to shut it down.  The house mothers had to not let her answer the door.

“You put on very tight blinders.  I made a commitment to feed and educate these children - and I can’t do anything else.  I’m here to do something very specific.”

That goes for well-meaning Americans and Europeans too.  For several years after the initial success of the ZCF in setting up a shelter and school, “people were constantly writing me:  What did I do, then what did I do next?”  But with 160 children to support, she just did not have time to answer the questions.  For a while she tried emailing back basic outlines of what to do, but then realized the real answer was that if you have to ask, you aren’t ready.  

“You have to be a fair amount of crazy in order to do something like this.  There is a huge amount of learning you need to do first - I had fifteen years of experience as a paralegal and in fundraising - and even then, you are likely to give up if you aren’t enough stubborn or crazy.”

The first several years of the ZCF Kathe had really no one to turn to, no one who had similar experiences.  Coming back from Zambia, where there was “disease everywhere, just a very difficult life,” very few of her friends and associates could really understand.  Peace Corps volunteers were closest.  Nonetheless, moving ahead was never a question.  “Making the decision was the hard part.  After that, I set about doing it.  Is that not how you do things?”

The ZCF is by no means the only organization working in Zambia.  Between the local government, community organizations and international involvement UNICEF reports that mortality for children under five has fallen from 19% in 1990 to 9% in 2012.   Technology has some contributions - there is no app to feed a child, but the Action for Transparency app that was recently launched lets anyone with a mobile device report corruption instantly, mainly misuse of funds that are intended to be used for health care, education or infrastructure.  

Africa is seen by some policy makers and reforms as a sort of lab for new approaches,
a place full of problems that perhaps some magic bullet of technology or policy can solve.
New solutions may well be useful, and they attract donors.  In the meantime, there are children to house, to feed, and to teach.  

If you would like to help with the ZCF’s work, see

“Whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world.”

Shopping bags sewn by grandmothers while the children are in school.

UNICEF statistics on Zambia

GDP per capita

Action for Transparency app

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