Not long after, Masha was brought to the hospital. The teenager was suffering from chronic stomach ulcers that made it difficult for him to eat anything but injera, a traditional Ethiopian food made of teff. A glucose IV at the hospital kept him alive, but Masha’s problems were more than sickness. After the deaths of his parents he had moved in with his grandmother and uncle. But they feared the sickly boy was cursed and turned Masha out, leaving him to fend for himself.
“I knew immediately that I had to do something that lessened that sort of pain, even if just for a few people,” Burton said.
When his eight-month visa expired, Burton returned to the United States. But Masha and Berhanu were always on his mind.
Before making the trip to Ethiopia, the 18-year-old Burton spent four months in Ecuador working in an orphanage owned by Paul Morrell, a businessman and philanthropist from Utah. It was that experience that sparked Burton’s initial interest in helping street children. Even with so little, the children in the orphanage were the lucky ones: They had a place to go.
So when Burton met Morrell on a chance encounter while in Ethiopia, the two discovered their connection and Morrell took an interest in what the young humanitarian had done to help a few street boys. If Burton wanted to do more, Morrell said, he would help him launch an organization dedicated to helping street boys, who number in the hundreds of thousands in Addis.
Ted Burton said his son spent hours on the Internet poring over United Nations reports on homeless youth populations and “printed reams and reams” of studies detailing the challenges non-government organizations faced in developing countries. Burton was seriously considering Morrell’s offer.
“As a parent I kept saying, 'No. There’s just too much war, too much famine, too much danger; no, no, no,'” recalls Ted Burton, who tried to dissuade his son from the daunting venture. “I said, 'Pick a different place, there’s street kids all over, pick somewhere beside Ethiopia.' But, the Lord had other plans.”
Realizing he could not change his son's mind, Ted Burton conceded and helped his son draw up a business plan for a home for street children. Then they went to see Morrell.
Soon Masha, Berhanu and Burton were together again in a small Addis house, where they were joined by Berhanu’s old begging partner, Dustlyn. And it wasn’t long before other boys started coming for help.
“Usually how it worked was they had medical needs. One had fallen off a bridge and broken his leg, Taye had his tumor, one had a tooth abscess that was really, really serious to the point where we took him to the emergency and he was unconscious for a while,” Burton says. “That’s how things started happening, when boys who we'd known before started having little emergencies and saying, 'Can you help?' And then you realize, ‘Huh, they can’t get better on the streets.’”
Today, 20 boys live in the home called Yehiwot Reay — which means “Vision of Life.” Most of them have been with Burton for four years or longer.
“It’s more like a family rather than an organization, to be honest,” he says.
It’s a big family, but Burton — who grew up in a family that now numbers 15 — is used to that. That’s where he learned the patience it takes to do this sort of work, he says.
“Jason’s remarkable,” Morrell said. “What kind of 20-year-old kid does that kind of thing? He’s had a lot of really, really hard times. He’s taken in kids that are addicted and have no discipline, and with all these challenges it’s remarkable he takes them on and does as well as he does with them.”
But as the years have gone by, Burton has begun to think more about when he will start his own family. He refuses to abandon the boys, but he thinks often of school, work and marriage. He gets lonely at times.
“I didn’t expect it to be easy; I knew there would be challenges,” he says. "But I guess I didn’t expect so many challenges.”
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