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Jason Olson, Deseret Morning News
Marta Gabre-Tsadick assists in the production of Atmit, a porridge-like formula, that will be sent to Ethiopia as part of a joint project.

Quality and abundance are relative terms to those who know something about daily life in Ethiopia, where the continuing drought has a choke hold on millions who are starving.

So it is American grocery store aisles that haunt Marta Gabre-Tsadick.

The Ethiopian native, who lived for 28 years in Indiana during the communist takeover of her nation, has come once again to the United States — including the LDS Church's Welfare Square in Salt Lake City on Friday — to sound the alarm. The founder and executive director of Project Mercy lives daily with the reality of starvation and want among her native people.

On her visits to gather U.S. aid, it's difficult for her to walk inside even the humblest of American grocery stores. The quality and abundance are overwhelming compared to the desperate lack of food where she comes from.

Even more chilling are customers' complaints about the produce, because its availability doesn't depend on local rainfall or weather. A tall, gracious woman with kindness in her eyes and a grasp of your hand, she's had many long conversations with disgruntled customers in such settings.

"I think I've done most of my 'preaching' there. I'll stop and talk with them for a half hour sometimes. There's snow outside and strawberries on the shelves, and you hear people say, 'This looks terrible.' I really tell them, 'You just don't know. The choices you have are unbelievable.' Yet because they haven't seen anything worse, they complain."

The daughter of Christian missionaries, Gabre-Tsadick knows both the abundance of life in the United States and the nothingness that is part of daily existence for millions of Africans. As the first woman senator in Ethiopia during the reign of Emperor Haile Selassie, she had to flee her native land in 1974 when the communist regime came to power.

She and her husband, Demeke Tekle-Wold, became refugees in Kenya, where they found the financial seeds of what has become their life's work through a friendship with a man who inherited Britain's Pilkington Glass. That friendship is one of many key relationships the couple has been "blessed with" during the past 30 years that helped grow the desire to help others into an organization now recognized internationally for its efficiency and scope.

She and her husband have never had great wealth financially, but they've always been rich in friends, she said. It was through one such friend named Grace Nelson, the wife of Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida, that they came into contact with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

"She initiated contact with the church and talked about the Project Mercy operation," according to Garry Flake, director of humanitarian services for the church. Involved with Project Mercy during the Ethiopian drought of 1984-86, Nelson recommended the organization as one the LDS Church might partner with its desire to provide famine relief.

In Salt Lake City on Friday, she and her husband helped with production of a life-saving porridge, dubbed Atmit, at the LDS Church's Welfare Square production plant. Consisting of oat flour, powdered milk, sugar and a vitamin/mineral supplement, two pounds of Atmit will save the life of a child or elderly person.

The porridge is prepared to the consistency of a cream soup and fed as a warm beverage to the most severely malnourished in quarter-cup feedings several times a day for a week. The church announced this week it is donating an additional 160 tons of Atmit for Ethiopian famine relief through Project Mercy. Previous donations of 400 tons have been given by the church and distributed through Gabre-Tsadick's organization on the ground in Ethiopia.

As women, children and the elderly are nourished with Atmit, they see it as a literal "injection" of life, according to her husband, Tekle-Wold.

Many poor Ethiopians who seek medical care don't have an especially high regard for medication in pill form, he said. But they are ready and willing participants in vaccination programs that have immediate impact on disease.

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Mothers who brought their emaciated children to the feeding area "told our distributors, 'what you gave us last month was an injection to our children.' "

A recent Ethiopian government briefing for relief agencies projected continued drought in Ethiopia this coming year, Gabre-Tsadick said, meaning some 5 million people will need food on an ongoing basis.

She said it's difficult to find words to express her gratitude to the LDS Church for its donation because translating the reality of human suffering into words is difficult. Thousands have been saved by the church's efforts, she said.

"We've held and fed and touched these starving children and then had the joy of watching them smile. I need to say this on behalf of the survivors. This is an awesome thing that you have done."

E-mail: carrie@desnews.com