by Sandra Guy – Read the article on the SunTimes Website
Paul Chadha, an in-house attorney for Accenture Corp. and a Northwestern University adjunct law school professor, recalls how, growing up in Chicago’s Broadview neighborhood, his mom worked the night shift as a nurse at a Veterans Administration hospital to bring up her three children as they struggled to stay current on the mortgage.
“Those were tough times,” said Chadha, 37, who now lives in the South Loop. “I vowed that if we could make it out, I would repay the debt.”
Little did he know that the chance would come with a task he took on reluctantly. A friend asked Chadha three times to serve as a pro-bono attorney for a children’s theater project focused on AIDS education in Ethiopia, and on the third try, he drove Chadha to the group’s board meeting under the guise of having lunch.
Within a few months of that meeting, Chadha was on a flight to Ethiopia to see the theater for himself.
On Chadha’s second visit seven years ago to the theater, in Awassa, Ethiopia, population 200,000, officials persuaded the Americans to take in eight orphaned children. The volunteer nonprofit group, the Awassa Children’s Project (AwassaChildrensProject.org), started by renting a house and hiring a house mother so the children could stay there. They enrolled the children in school and ensured that they had proper nutrition and medical attention.
Chadha serves as president and spokesman for the project, which now employs about 15 people in Ethiopia at a four-acre compound that the Awassa Children’s Project owns and operates. The compound comprises the theater, a library, a medical clinic, an administrative building, a multipurpose hall, an orphanage that cares for 105 children who have lost both parents, and an accredited vocational training school that provides a free year-long program for 100 adult students.
The project has obtained government grants and private support totaling $600,000 over the past six years, including $35,000 from the U.S. Agency for International Development through the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief in Africa, and contributions from the Blue Man Group, Accenture, an ELCA Lutheran church in the Loop, and the Chicago law offices of Seyfarth Shaw, where Chadha’s wife, Ada, works as an attorney.
The project’s fiscal 2011 operating budget of $160,000 was based on the orphanage housing 80 to 85 children. To Chadha’s surprise, UNICEF and the Ethiopian government arrived in August to drop off 50 additional children— the center could take only 30 — who had been mistreated at other orphanages in southern Ethiopia.
One of the project’s biggest expenses is the medicine needed by children who have HIV/AIDS, at about $1,000 per child.
The project is now seeking to raise $52,000 to convert the existing school into new housing for the extra children, to build a new school and to set up high-speed Wi-Fi connections throughout the compound.
“Bringing Wi-Fi is crucial to our new school,” Chadha said.
Indeed, technology is playing a key role in the project’s growth and mission.
The Awassa Vocational Training Center reserves its 25-seat computer classes for women only to ensure that they obtain valuable skills, get jobs and escape the discrimination and ill treatment to which women are routinely subjected. The center also teaches electrical skills, woodworking and metal working.
“Technology, in many ways, acts as a [gender] equalizer,” Chadha said.
The school is outfitted with solar panels that power the entire complex with solar energy, and the center has its own clean-water supply from a donated well and submerged pump.
“It is amazing to see solar energy working at its peak,” Chadha said. “We are off the Ethiopian ‘grid,’ which rarely works, and we have power 24/7.”
The project posts a weekly blog updating followers about the latest goings-on, and keeps up with the program’s older kids on Facebook. One of the project’s success stories is Jibril, whose score on his university entrance exam was among the highest in the country. He is studying to become an engineer. Jibril and his sister were two of the first children who came to the orphanage. Jibril’s sister, Sitina Hall, died of HIV/AIDS in 2005. The multipurpose hall is named in her memory.
Besides the uphill fight against poverty, illness and a record drought, the city of Awassa must guard against a nearby war raging between U.S. proxies and al-Qaida militants in neighboring Somalia.
Yet the Awassa Children’s Project’s success shows how a non-profit uses best business practices to leverage public-private partnerships and to hire experienced, long-term employees, said Susan Giles Bischak, president of Giles & Company Strategic Business Consultants and a distance-learning professor of economic development finance at the University of California, Los Angeles.
“The most important factors are the ability to use technology to construct a business plan in a way that investors, donors, lenders, suppliers and all parties find credible,” Bischak said.