As you read this, Kathy Headlee is flying to Africa to assist the thousands of orphaned children there. Many people are moved by media images of starving and destitute children in the world, but the feeling is more literal for Headlee. She moves when she is moved. She has made this trip about 30 times in the past seven years.
She can cite all the statistics of the orphaned and dying children it was once reported that 500 people a day were dying of AIDS in Lusaka, Zambia's capital, and that each day 6,000 African children lost a parent to AIDS. But as Headlee notes, "It's easy to talk statistics. When those stats have names, when they're people and faces ... " She thinks of Bridgette, Bwalya, Tabu, Carol, Nchimunya, Mwiza, Nankamba ...
What difference can one person make? Headlee founded an organization called Mothers Without Borders. It's a two-woman operation run out of her house in American Fork, consisting of Headlee and an assistant. Last year alone MWB shipped 38 tons of supplies to Africa.
Several times each year she flies to MWB's African base in Lusaka to oversee distribution of supplies. She stays three weeks at a time, then returns to the U.S. to gather more supplies, and then she's gone again. She spends the entire summer in Africa.
What different can one person make? Her organization has purchased 80 acres in Zambia, using it to grow food and to teach vocational skills. Working in several African nations, MWB builds schools, wells and clinics, cares for orphans and finds and assists those who are already trying to do the work grandmothers caring for others' children, schools, existing orphanages, community organizations.
It's overwhelming. There are orphans everywhere, in the street, in shacks or abandoned chicken coops, on the roads, all of them left behind by dead parents. They remain in the neighborhoods where their parents died, creating a huge strain on meager local resources. The adult population is dying out, and the number of orphans grows in areas already plagued by rampant unemployment, disease, food shortages, poor hygiene and no running water, toilets or electricity. Children are left to care for children, usually younger siblings. They eat out of Dumpsters or beg in the streets or turn to prostitution or fall victim to illness or street violence.
Headlee, 54, couldn't turn away from it. She has always had a Size XXXL heart. Her empathy was aroused when she was a child watching images of starving children on TV. As a young adult, she ventured to Mexico from her San Diego home to work in orphanages or renovate houses, and once moved a family into her home that had been living in a garage. She traveled to South America and India to do similar work, and, after seeing a story on "60 Minutes" about orphans in Romania, she made 13 trips to that country to work. Headlee, with four children of her own, eventually adopted a Romanian child.
Now she has turned her efforts to Africa, and her work and dedication are infectious. After hearing a 30-second interview that Headlee did on National Public Radio, a stranger called and offered her $10,000. After reading a story in the Deseret Morning News three years ago, a man sent her a check for $60,000. Others volunteer their muscles. Each year 75 to 100 people from Utah volunteer to travel with her to Africa, at their own expense, to assist her work. She relies on private donations, some of them coming through her Web site, motherswithoutborders.org.
For Headlee, it's all too personal and urgent. While wandering in a village one day she met a young boy who was staggering through the streets with ghastly swollen hands and feet and face, dying of AIDS. She picked him up and carried him to her facility. He died the next day.
They're not all hopeless cases. Anthony lived on the streets for four years before Headlee finally persuaded him, after several attempts, to let her put him in a boarding school, at the age of 13. He's 18 now and recently placed second in a national math-science competition. He plans to become a doctor and help people in his country. Evann was 12 when Headlee found him living in a chicken run. He wants to become a pilot.
"They're no different than kids over here," she says. "They have hopes and dreams. They see billboards in town and the TVs in shop windows; they know how we live here. They know about houses with TV and running water and toilets. They want to succeed and contribute."Headlee has dedicated her life to helping them do just that.
Doug Robinson's column runs on Tuesday. Please send e-mail to [email protected].