The latest obstacle is funding. For the moment, Burton is supporting the boys largely on his own savings. He says he will be able to keep the program going for the next year but fears he won’t be able to meet the demands of the government, which expects him to take in new street boys every year in order to keep his license. The four oldest boys have offered to get jobs to help pay the expenses of the home, which costs about $2,000 a month to operate.
Jote, 18, says it only makes sense to help, given the way Burton has cared for him and his 12-year-old brother after their parents died of AIDS.
“I learned from him what love means,” Jote says.
Burton is touched by the gesture. “Even though it’s a really big challenge, it’s really nice to see that they have such a great appreciation for the home that they’d think to do that,” he said. “That it’s not just a program for them, it’s their family.”
In a nation where the per capita income is just more than $1,000 a year, there is little hope that the older boys could make enough to support the home by themselves. But their efforts might be part of a model for making the home sustainable. And that, in turn, might open some room for Burton to return to the United States.
He wonders, sometimes, what would have become of him if he had not been drawn back to Addis.
“I would have probably gone on to study sociology and worked as a social worker in a non-profit in the States if Ethiopia hadn’t sidetracked me so completely,” he said.
Sometimes, he says, people accuse him of being some sort of Peter Pan, the leader of the band of lost boys in a faraway land.
“I do feel like God moved me to help that first boy, but sometimes I feel like I’m just a spectator watching things go where they’ll go in spite of me,” he says. “But I’m sensing that I’ll always stay involved with our kids, but that the way could change.”
But for now he feels this is where he needs to be.
Ted Burton recently celebrated his 50th birthday, and as tradition dictates, the family celebrates by driving to Lake Shasta in Northern California and spending their last week of summer on the water. It’s times like these when Ted Burton finds himself thinking about his absent oldest son.
“Wanting a future back home for him, it’s not quite like that. I can see where he’s happiest and he definitely belongs there,” he said. “There’s real joy and inner meaning to his life in Ethiopia, and that’s not something I know how to replace for him here. Once you’ve had kids who would have died if you weren’t there, it’s not something you can replace.”
Ted Burton pauses. It is a long, contemplative pause. “But we sure do miss him.”
Back in the home, Jason Burton gently chides 6-year-old Kufa, who has missed his first day of summer school.
“I didn’t see you go, Kufa,” Burton says.
He holds the boy’s gaze, prodding him to admit he was on Bole Road, his old stomping grounds. After a while the boy shrugs and goes back to working on a craft bracelet. Burton holds no grudge.
“It’s a struggle, especially for the ones that have been on the street for more than a year,” he explains, noting that drug addictions are especially hard to break. “But they support each other a lot, and when they overcome the drug problems it’s a lot of time because of them supporting each other.”
He reaches down to touch Kufa’s hair.
“We’re all human,” he says. “Just do your best — that’s all you can do.”
Mackinzie Hamilton is a freelance journalist based out of Logan.
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