WEST VALLEY CITY — Less than half of Ethiopian children attend school, and because families must pay for their children to attend, in addition to uniforms and supplies, most choose to send only their sons.
In 2001, Utahns Norm and Ruthann Perdue traveled to Ethiopia for humanitarian work and saw this inequality for themselves. When they came home, they spoke with family members and friends and soon created the Children of Ethiopia Education Fund. Their goal was to support 400 girls a year in private schools.
By 2004, Ned and Kathy Searle of Murray had learned of the nonprofit and decided it would be a good thing for their children to learn how others lived around the world.
"I thought it was important that we strengthen women in the world," Ned Searle said. "I thought what a better way to make a strong woman than to give her the education she needs in her own country, to provide for herself and her family and also maybe become a leader in her community."
They decided to sponsor Kidist, a bright 7-year-old. She and her sister, Bethlehem, who had another sponsor, remember how they felt when they learned they would be able to attend school.
"It was great," said Kidist, who is now 14 years old. "I was really happy. I didn't have to worry about paying for stuff."
Bethlehem, 17, said, "I can go to school there without paying, without worrying about it, and I feel like the luckiest girl, ever."
The fund, says its executive director Sylvia McMillan, is more than about education. I also helps prevent teenage pregnancies and cases of HIV/AIDS.
"It is the difference between life and death in a country like Ethiopia," McMillan said. "Girls getting an education then are able to provide for themselves economically." It works, she said, because this group is not starting from scratch.
"This organization sponsors girls to go into private schools that already exist, that have a higher level of teaching going on," she said. "We're not building buildings. We're just helping girls get a better education."
In 2007, Bethlehem and Kidist auditioned for the fund's dance troupe. One hundred girls tried out for 10 spaces. Both girls made it and then traveled to America.
The Searles were thrilled to meet Kidist, but didn't know about her sister or that they were now orphans. The girls lost their parents between the time the Searles started sponsoring Kidist and the time they came to the United States.
The Searles fell in love with the girls and did for them what they had been doing for others for years. In addition to their three biological children, they have adopted six children: two boys from Columbia, and a boy and two girls from the United States.
"I had said we would not adopt any more kids unless they land on our doorstep," Kathy Searle said. "And they did," her husband added.
When the girls found out the Searles wanted to adopt them, they didn't know what to think because they didn't understand what it meant. Once it was explained to them, they were extremely happy.
"I was like, 'Is this really happening?'" Bethlehem said. "I was like, 'Oh my gosh, I can't believe it.'" Bethlehem said she had dreamed about having another family, even before she came to the United States.
Kidist said she was so excited, she started crying.
It had cost $285 a year to send Kidist to school in Ethiopia. The Searles said they received much more than they gave.
"I think it's been amazing," Kathy Searle said. "What we've been able to learn from them. We wouldn't have gotten that love for that country any other way, and they've just enriched and blessed our lives."
The Searles now have children ranging in age from 14 to 30, and four of them are still at home.
When Bethlehem and Kidist now think about other girls in Ethiopia, they are near tears in describing their living conditions.
"Everytime I think about it, sitting in my room, I cry." Bethlehem said. "Because when you don't have a mom and dad, you spend the rest of your life in the street, and that's pretty hard to see."
"I see myself. I have all these clothes, and I have all this food," Kidist said. "There's no food in Ethiopia. Family, kids on the street. There's no home."
The Children of Ethiopia Education Fund has now sent thousands of girls to school. The donors believe they are paving the way for young women to rise out of poverty.
Last year, the group helped more than 400 girls. This year, 75 sponsors are still needed. The group's annual fundraiser will be on Saturday, Aug. 25, between 6 p.m. and 9 p.m. at 4576 S. Creekview Drive. For more information go to www.coeef.org.