Seeds of Hope: How one American woman is helping Africa help itself

Published: Sunday, Oct. 23 2011 12:00 a.m. MDT

Care for Life kicks against a couple long-held traditions in humanitarian aid. Most international development experts suggest picking a need, like clean water or infant mortality, and becoming an expert. Care for Life focuses on eight areas of emphasis: community participation, education, health, nutrition, sanitation, income generation, home improvement and psycho-social well being. The nonprofit organizes the villagers, teaches leadership skills and, through a system of goals — individual and community — requires them to earn everything they get. No handouts. No exceptions.

"Care for Life is the future of humanitarian aid in developing countries," said Warner Woodworth, a global social entrepreneur who consults for international NGOs. "In three decades of work, I haven't seen anything to equal what they've accomplished in the villages outside Beira."

Leap of faith

With two teenagers still at home, Packard had her hands full in 1999 as the president of the local women's organization for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints when a friend approached her with some disheartening facts about infant mortality in Mozambique and an idea: "Have you ever thought of going to Africa?"

Of course she hadn't. In fact, she'd become quite adept at ignoring Africa. A compassionate woman, so pumped full of love it leaks out the corner of her eyes, Packard doesn't empathize with people; she internalizes their pain. So, as a matter of self-preservation, she breezed right over the headlines about toil and strife on the world's poorest continent. "I couldn't stand to look at those heartbreaking pictures when everything seemed so hopeless," she said. When she prayed about the idea — something she agreed to do only to get her rather persistent friend off her back — she did so halfheartedly.

"God?" she asked, kneeling down next to her bed one day. "You don't want me to go to Africa do you?"

Within four months, Packard was bumping along an ill-kept road in Mozambique, dodging women balancing 50 pounds of water atop their heads and potholes big enough to swallow a small car. Rivers of sewage wound in, out and around shacks made from scrap metal and old tires. Barefoot children in shredded, too-small clothes played near six-foot-high piles of trash. Cripples dragged their bodies through the dirt hand over hand. The smell was acrid. The sight, overwhelming.

"What am I doing here?" Packard thought.

She didn't have a plan. "I just knew I was supposed to help," she said. But within a day of her arrival, she stumbled upon the answer: a truck marked "pro familia" parked on the side of the road. "My cousin is the minister of health," said the woman inside. "He's having dinner at our house tonight. Do you want to meet him?"

Packard is convinced it was providence.

On the southeast coast of Africa, Mozambique, with it's palm trees and white sand beaches, was once considered one of the world's top honeymoon destinations. Now, abandoned by the Portuguese who colonized it and torn apart by a 16-year civil war, it is the 10th poorest country in the world. Disease runs rampant through the population, where close to 60 percent of people drink contaminated water and 38 percent don't use sanitation facilities. With it, comes death. About 1.5 million of Mozambique's children have been orphaned by disease or abandoned because their parents were too poor to care for them, according to UNICEF. HIV rates are climbing: 12 percent of adults and more than 90,000 children are living infected. Malaria, acute respiratory infections, diarrhea and vaccine-preventable diseases claim the lives of close to 124,000 children under the age of five every year. Life expectancy is 37 years.

For lack of a better idea, Packard asked the minister of health if she could use her midwife training to help deliver babies at a refugee camp where people displaced by a recent hurricane had gathered. Instead, he sent her on a tour of the country to find out what people in rural areas needed most.

She nearly gave up when she heard their list of grievances.

"I was silly to come," she thought. "I am just one woman."

But in a school's humble request for pencils, she found hope. "Pencils?" she thought, perking up. "I can do pencils."

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