Thursday, April 30, 2015


June 11, 2011

Dear friends and family,
As I approach my big 4-0 in October I have decided that the way I most want to celebrate is to return to Ethiopia.  We are lucky enough to be a part of an ever-growing community of Ethiopian adoptive families that have given their hearts and souls back to Ethiopia.  In September of this year, one of those families, the Alexanders, is leading a mission trip to bring smiles to as many Ethiopians as possible (see "Our Inspiration...").  Dr. Moody Alexander and his wife, Emily, are bringing a team of orthodontists, dentists and helpers to serve the capital city of Ethiopia -  Addis Ababa, the city in which Sophie was born.  The Alexanders are a very special family and you can learn more about them and their love for Ethiopia on their blog.  They have four biological children and two boys that were adopted from Ethiopia - one with Cerebral Palsy.  This is their second Ethiopia Smile mission and I am honored to be able to join them with Matthew this year. 

Our mission is to bring smiles to Ethiopians in three very special ways.  Please bear with me through this long post to see how you can help Ethiopia Smile!

Smile Part I
This portion of the mission is quite literally bringing smiles to Ethiopia.  We will spend four days serving the poorest sections of Addis with any and all dental needs - primarily extractions and teaching basic dental care.  Obviously, Matt and I won't be pulling any teeth out, but we will help with running supplies, managing the crowds and anything else they need us to do.  Last year the team helped 300-400 patients EACH DAY!  One of the areas is at the city trash dump.  Hundreds of people actually live in extreme poverty in Korah, a city of outcasts within Addis at the dump.  These will be emotionally charged days for sure, but the reports from last year's trip indicated that the extreme joy of these people outshone the despair as they watched a team of 65 people love and care for them.  I have attached two powerful videos at the end of this post made by members of Ethiopia Smile 2010.

Smile Part II
Another day of the trip will be spent delivering wheelchairs to disabled Ethiopian adults and children living in the city and surrounding areas.  The wheelchairs are provided by Wheels For Humanity and we are hoping to deliver 500 wheelchairs around the community!  Of these, 200 of them will be custom built on-site, in-country for the most severely disabled... amputees, kids with spina bifida, cerebral palsy, etc.  We will have physical therapists traveling with us to handle the fittings and transition.  To put it in perspective, the wheelchairs that we are bringing have an average true value of $2,000 - $6,000, so we will literally be donating hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of medical equipment. 

Another Ethiopian adoptive family we know from California (see "Our Inspiration..."), is spearheading this effort and has helped produce this powerful and informative 60 second video.  Their daughter was actually with Sophie in her final foster home and we were able to meet her when she first arrived to the home and send them pictures and videos of her as they waited to travel!  

Smile Part III
The final part of our journey will be to visit several government-run orphanages around the city (including Sophie's).  Some of these are for children waiting to be adopted internationally, while others are for older children that will likely not ever be adopted and will be turned away from the orphanage at the age of 18.  We saw many of these orphanages during our last trip and while the conditions were heartbreaking, the children were filled with joy and hope for a brighter future.  One of the favorite activities at these orphanages is soccer.  An Ethiopian man by the name of Ephrem Hagos has started an organization called Ethiopia Youth Impact Academy to help these children take advantage of any glimmer of hope and joy that they do have and enjoy their lives together.  He collects uniforms, balls and shoes for these children and facilitates soccer as an organized sport to the extent possible.  He is now also trying to raise money to start a group home for all of the boys and turn the game into something much bigger.

Here is a picture from September 2007 of the "soccer field" at the older boys' orphange, Kolfe, and some of the boys (and me) ready for a game!

The video below summarizes many of the needs I have discussed above and discusses the Ethiopian Youth Soccer initiative as well as the truth about life in Addis and Korah, in particular. 

The City of Addis - A short documentary from Session 7 Media on Vimeo.

Smile Part IV - HOW YOU CAN HELP!!
While Matt and I are thrilled to be part of such an important and life-changing journey, we are writing to you today to ask for your help.  

We are trying to raise as much money as possible to ensure that the 500 people waiting for wheelchairs are not disappointed.  The actual wheelchairs range in cost from $150 for an adult standard chair to $300 for a child's positioning chair (remember they are valued at $2,000 to $6,000!!), though it is difficult to put a price on broadening the horizons of a severely disabled human being and allowing them the freedom to move.   If you would like to donate, it is CRITICAL that you use the form just below.  Although the form outlines specific amounts, shipping these chairs is extremely expensive, so ANY amount is appreciated and needed.  100% OF ALL DONATIONS go directly to the cost of the wheelchairs and the shipment of the wheelchairs (and is obviously tax-deductible).  There will be a production company traveling with us to document the distribution, so you will all get to see photos and videos of all of the recipients and witness the smiles spreading!

WFH Donation Form

With four kids of our own, all of whom have played soccer in one form or another here in town, we know that we receive a new shirt (or two + shorts!) every season.  We are looking to collect as many shirts and shorts as possible.  They can be simple t-shirts or travel jerseys with numbers - believe me, they will all be well-received.  We plan on talking to the Darien Youth Soccer league and The Darien Times to spread the word (and encourage you to do the same in your town if you live elsewhere).  There are three ways for you to donate:

1) Drop off uniforms in the large plastic bin at our house - email me for the address
2) I would be happy to pick them up at your house at any time - just email me to make arrangements.
3) I will pay for you to ship them to me at the address above - again, email me to make arrangements.

I'm also in the process of determining exactly how to donate funds to Ethiopian Youth Soccer for their new programs including sponsoring children - stay tuned!

It's really that simple!

We can't begin to describe how excited we are for this journey to begin.  We honestly believe that it will not end with our trip to Ethiopia in September, but rather, will only be the beginning of lifelong adventure!  

Please feel free to send this link to anyone who you think might want to help.  Even if you can't donate, we appreciate your support in helping us help Ethiopia smile!

Just in case you need any more convincing, I have included below a powerful video made by the Ethiopia Smile 2010 team chronicling their journey.  There is another great one that I can't get on Blogger, but you can find it here.  Enjoy!

ethiopiasmile: By Our Love from Kurt Neale on Vimeo.

Stay tuned for updates on fundraising, preparations for our trip,  and pictures and posts about our actual trip in September 2011!

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Our needs, updated!

June 13, 2011

I know that my email and blog post below are a bit overwhelming in terms of the amount of information, so I thought a quick list would help everyone understand our immediate needs:

1)  Donations to Wheels For Humanity for the 500 wheelchairs we will be delivering on our trip.  Please use this form so we know the money is going to our particular shipping container!

2)  Our wonderful adoption agency, Gladney, does an amazing job at getting humanitarian aid to the children of Ethiopia.  These needs include quality-of-life assistance, transition programs for older teenagers leaving institutional or foster care, Brighter Future Camps, and emergency relief.  Donate here.

3)  Prayers for a safe and successful trip to bring as many smiles to Ethiopia as we can!

As far as the soccer uniforms go, we are lucky to say that we have as much as we can possibly carry!  I have collected a huge bin of shirts, shorts and socks from all over Fairfield County and was also able to secure over 1,000 brand new shirts through our contacts at UCP Wheels for Humanity.  Thanks so much to all of you who have donated - we can't wait to share the pictures!

Thanks so much for all of your support so far!

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Five more days!!

September 18, 2011
Here we are, ready to go!  I can't believe we leave in 5 days and 2 hours (but who's counting?!?!)  As of now, we have raised over $25,000 towards the wheelchairs (and the donations continue to come in) and our bags are overflowing with soccer uniforms - both new and slightly used.  We are so thankful for all of your donations - including your uniforms, monetary contributions and good wishes!

Everyone keeps asking if we are ready to go.  We are definitely ready to go, it's whether I am ready to leave that is the question!  I always forget how many logistics are involved when leaving kids at home when I go away.  John will be helped by sitters, friends and parents and I hope the younger three will be on their best behavior.  I finally typed the many pages of who needs to be where, when, with what, etc.  It will be a busy week for them, but they are happy to send us on our way and take care of themselves!

I am really hoping to be able to update nightly, but I have no idea what the Internet situation will be like or how exhausted I will be!  In the meantime, you can always check for updates at "EthiopiaSmile 2011" on Facebook, or on the Alexander's blog - our team leaders.  We have so much to see and accomplish.  I hope we are up to the challenge!

I asked Matt today what he is most nervous about and what he is most looking forward to.  He said, "I am most nervous that all of the Ethiopian kids that I play soccer with will be WAY better than me."  I told him that I was guessing that he will be in charge of entertaining some of the kids that are waiting for their parents (or themselves) to receive dental care.  He figured that soccer would be a great activity - he only hopes he can keep up.  As far as the thing he is most looking forward to - "THE WHOLE TRIP!"  We were lucky enough to have a quiet lunch outside alone together on a beautiful day.  We were both so happy to realize that in 5 short days we'll get to spend 10 full days alone together - something that hasn't happened in 9 years!

The Alexanders posted a prayer card for our trip that I will also share with you here (I hope you can read it - as with everything they do, it is a really nice idea!).
Well, that will probably be all until we are in Ethiopia.  We land at 2pm NY time on Saturday.  It will be a long flight - especially since we'll be too excited to sleep!  Thanks again for all of your help, encouragement and prayers.  We can't wait to report back!

Monday, April 27, 2015

Day 1 - Saturday - 9/25/11

Travel & Road Blocks
Well from home to hotel was almost exactly 24 hours – an exhausting trip!  There was such heavy flooding in NY that we were really afraid we would miss our flight.  The Merritt/Hutch was closed for a big portion and the progress around the detour was very slow.  Luckily, once we got to the Whitestone Bridge, the traffic disappeared and we flew right to the airport.  The man at the Lufthansa desk was so incredibly helpful and allowed us to check five bags between the two of us for free, all of which were closer to 60 pounds than 50.  We had John wait while we checked our bags because one was a bag of regular T-shirts and gently used clothing that I knew someone could use, but that wasn’t promised to anyone in Addis.  I figured that the worst-case scenario was that he could take it home to donate to the local church clothing drive.  After our big hugs and goodbyes to John we were on our way. 

We flew from JFK to Frankfurt on the first leg.  I always look forward to flights when I think I’ll have all of this time to read and listen to music or watch movies.  Then I forget how uncomfortable it is – not to mention that it was an overnight flight, so I was really trying to sleep!  We had a very short connection in Frankfurt, but we were able to meet a bunch of the Ethiopia Smile team members there, which was great.  The only familiar faces were the Alexanders and Drew & Carey, but everyone was so welcoming that it soon felt like we had met everyone before.  I think Emily is going to do a post on the team at some point (and I know she did one for last year’s team, which was very similar), so I may have to steal that information from her.  Basically, it is a group of people from all over:  dentists from CA, TX, AZ, fellow church members of the Alexanders, fellow Ethiopian adoptive families, Moody’s mom, Emily’s mom, sister and niece, and friends of all of these people from the states, England and France, even the Alexander’s local Starbucks barista, who has become part of their family over the years.

The second leg of the flight from Frankfurt to Addis was pretty uneventful.  We were a little late, but all of our drivers were ready and waiting for our arrival.  Customs, on the other hand, was not.  Unfortunately, despite many highly regarded Ethiopians helping on the ground ahead of our arrival, weeks of preparation by the Alexanders in the US, and several official government documents allowing all of the dental equipment and baby formula to enter the country, it wasn’t going to happen.  I used my typical “look lost and confused” strategy and simply pushed our 5 huge bags right through customs.  Apparently, the customs agents aren’t even letting soccer uniforms and clothing in these days.  After a very long time negotiating late into the night, Moody finally made the executive decision to leave 14 of the bags/crates of dental equipment at the airport and return in the morning with additional paperwork and assistants to try to get it out.  To fast forward a bit, after DAYS of negotiating, running back and forth from the airport to government offices, the customs agents wouldn’t allow it through.  Even though everything in all of these bags/crates was only to help the people of Ethiopia, they wouldn’t allow it.  There were all sorts of theories as to why – they were going to figure out how to get money from us, they were going to take it all and sell it, they were just flexing their governmental muscle to prove their power (which happens in multiple forms here).  It was so disheartening.  The dentists and the team were all amazing in stretching the instruments, drugs and equipment that we were able to get through across the four dental days.  I was so afraid we would have lines of people waiting for care that we would have to deny, but the team and the locals helping find patients did such a good job managing the numbers.  

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Day 2 - Sunday - 9/26/2011

Saba’s house for wheelchair distribution / Church / unpacking /dinner
Despite having set my alarm for pm and missing it, Since our room is luckily right above the breakfast room, and you can hear EVERY noise, we were woken up by the sounds of excitement downstairs.  We didn’t get to the hotel until about 1:30am last night and had to be up by 6:30am.  Of course, I couldn’t fall asleep until 2:30, so I actually think it was better to wake up in a total panic, because there was no snooze button possible!!

Today was a great way to start the trip.  We started the day with the first wheelchair distribution destination.  We went to a woman’s home in Addis who runs a library for children out of her home and who has access to many different organizations that were able to find people in need of a wheelchair.  When we arrived, there were already several people waiting there to greet us.  The men who were waiting for wheelchairs were polite, but incredibly quiet.  We first had a little tour of the library – she is very proud of what she has built, as she should be.  A lot of local children who are able to go to school will come to her house to study since many have no place to really do that outside of school.  Others might come to learn to read if they aren’t able to go to school. 

It wasn’t long before we went to work.  We had to unpack many of the wheelchairs and set them up.  Some have solid wheels, but those that didn’t had to have the wheels pumped up, so Matt jumped right to the task.  The conditions were a little tough because the grass was so muddy, but it didn’t seem to stop anyone.  As wheelchairs were unpacked we just opened the boxes and laid them all out on the ground to be sure that all of the recipients could wheel themselves right around. 

The people varied from small children to adults – some who could maneuver themselves into the chairs, and others who could not.  The one boy who stole my heart was about Matt’s age.  His mother has been carrying him to and from school every day across the city and because of the time this takes, she can no longer work.  He has no use of his legs and minimal use of his arms and hands.  Her husband left her because he couldn’t handle the situation anymore.  Every time someone wanted a picture of him he insisted that his mother was with him.  There was no question that he was as happy for her to literally have this burden lifted from her as he was to have the wheelchair.   He was obviously a very smart kid and without this wheelchair he would have had to stop going to school in the very near future.  I was holding him as Matt and another volunteer installed the safety belt on the chair and believe me, this mother had to have been incredibly strong both physically and mentally. 

The serious expressions quickly turned to joy as people were assisted into their new “cars” as one put it.  I was pretty happy and busy through most of the morning, but saying goodbye was difficult.  The mother both gave me the hardest hug you could imagine and asked me to please never forget her son because he may need me again someday soon.  They know where we come from and it was hard to decipher exactly what she was trying to say.  I can only hope that this wheelchair will change their lives in a way that prevent them from needing anyone again. 

From there we went to the Beza International Church.  When Matt found out that church was more than an hour and a half he looked at me with an expression less than excited.  However, once he was there, things changed.  Basically, it was almost all singing about God and what he has done for their people, poor or not and what he will continue to do for them.  After seeing what he has seen so far along the streets and at the wheelchair distribution, it all finally hit him.  He got pretty emotional at church and needed a little time to take it all in.  When I asked him why he was sad, he replied that he definitely wasn’t sad.  I think seeing everyone come together in such a happy, faithful way helped him understand how the positive attitude of so many Ethiopians helps them survive.

After church, we all went to lunch at Top View, the restaurant where John, Sophie and I had our first meal together.  It had a great view of the city and we didn’t realize how hungry we were until we got there!  It’s the end of the rainy season here, so it’s been low to mid 70s with on and off rain all day. 

After that, we all came back to the hotel for showers, naps, etc.  I was afraid to take a nap and not be able to either (1) wake up again before dinner or (2) not sleep at all that night, so I stuck it out despite being absolutely exhausted.  The top floor of the hotel is a large conference room where all of the supplies and humanitarian aid were waiting to be unloaded.  Matt watched a movie for a bit and I helped unpack all of the dental supplies, baby formula, diapers, clothing, toys, etc.  You cannot imagine the amount of stuff 40+ people can bring!! 

We unpacked everything, got it organized, then we needed to pack up the goodie bags.  Basically we counted out baggies of 16 ibuprofen or acetaminophen each or 8 tablets of antibiotics until our eyes bugged out.  We also bagged a toothbrush and toothpaste for each patient so they would get them at the end of treatment.  It’s so hard to believe that these people will actually need a lesson on how to brush. 

After all the unpacking, repacking and bagging was done, we had a giant team dinner.  Everyone was SO tired, but we had a big meeting to discuss what to expect and got our jobs assigned.   Finally to bed by 11 for the 7am wake-up call!

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Day 3 - Monday - 9/27/11

 Adama/Nazareth, YWAM house, first dental day / Island Breeze for dinner
YWAM House for Widows & Orphans
What a great day.  We were up early and on the road to Adama (also called Nazareth) by 7am.  We had a 2+ hour drive south out of the city, so this was the first and potentially only day we had to worry about mosquitoes.  We will spend most of our time in the capital city, Addis, where the elevation is high enough that there is no malaria worry.  So out came the DEET and off we went.  This day was very special because the Alexanders met their beautiful daughter for the first time.  She is in a home that houses area widows and orphans.  We were also lucky enough to meet the son of a dear friend that currently lives in my hometown.  There are only about 10 children and 10 widows living there right now, but the entire building was under construction, so my guess is that it will become a much bigger home in the near future (well, near in Ethiopia terms).  All the kids were very interested in us, but we are a pretty overwhelming group – most were afraid to be held or touched and were very attached to their caregivers, which I actually took as a great sign.  Matt had fun right down on the ground with the few that were really excited to play with him – backwards crawling and an etch-a-sketch were the biggest hits!  Unfortunately, since all of the children are either matched with or referred to families already, I can’t post any pictures on here, but rest assured – they are all beautiful and well-loved!
The paparazzi have arrived to welcome Baby Alexander!

It's hard to put into words seeing your daughter for the first time in person!

After seeing all of the kids, it was off to work.  Next door in the church we set up the dental stations and took our posts.  They have it all down to a science for sure.  There was the intake desk, where we got the patients’ names and ages, then they were off to the assessment station, where the dentist checked their mouths and decided treatment.  Given the limited time and supplies, the options were (1) send them off with toothpaste and a toothbrush after a quick lesson on brushing – clearly many have NEVER brushed their teeth before, (2) send them off with antibiotics for any simple infections they may have, or (3) send them off to anesthesia to get numb and then to a dentist for extraction.  These people were so brave especially since many have never seen a dentist and they were not made numb before the shots.  My job was a patient buddy, so I got to bring the patients through the steps until they were finished.  My first patient had to have SIX teeth pulled.  This was made even more difficult by the fact that many of the teeth were rotted enough that it was difficult to even get a grasp on them to pull them out.  The dentists were amazing – they were all very gentle and had learned enough Amharic to attempt to put the patients at ease.  They didn’t have any of the tools that would make the extractions simple in the US because of lack of electricity at the clinics (drills, suction, etc.)  Some patients were clearly petrified, but didn’t flinch and barely even squeezed my hand.  Some were much more in need of a hand to squeeze or a reassuring hug.  Some remained incredibly stoic until the end when a huge smile of relief, or even a single tear, crossed their face.  Then they were ready to hug, bow and thank.  I’ve never seen so many people so happy to endure pain knowing how much better they would be in the long term.

Matt was a really great worker.  Everyone here loves him – the team is constantly telling me what a great kid and wonderful worker he is and the Ethiopians just adore him.  The husband (or brother?) of the head of the orphanage loved calling him Dr. Matt because Matt got to wear a medical robe, a facemask and gloves, which he thought was pretty cool!  His job was to run dental equipment from the sterilization area to the table where the dental assistants would go get what they wanted.  Basically, the sterilization area was made up of four large pots that had bleached/boiled everything at extremely high temperatures for 20 minutes.  When the desired time and temperature were reached, a huge blast of steam flew to the ceiling in a loud rush and the entire room erupted with applause knowing that another dentist could resume his or her work.  I think the patients were a little confused (it was LOUD), but were quickly calmed by our smiles and thumbs up saying “it’s a good thing”.

We did the dentistry from about 10 until 2pm and then were able to go back to the baby house to see everyone again and to have a traditional coffee ceremony.  Back at home I had gone through all of my old jewelry that I haven’t worn in years – mostly costume, some silver and other things.  I knew it was a good amount, but that I couldn’t pull it out in a place like Korah for fear of leaving too many disappointed, so I thought this would be the perfect place to hand some out.  Every widow, nanny, cleaner, dish and clothes washer got either a bracelet or necklace.  For some, the snack-size baggie it came in was as important to them as the piece.  The older women were more direct about what they wanted.  If the woman next to them got something they liked better than theirs, they asked me for something similar.  I think the nannies were so much more taken aback that they didn’t say a word other than thank you and God bless.  It was clear that their worldly possessions were incredibly limited.  It seemed like such a simple but well-received gesture.

The hardest part of the day was seeing the Alexanders having to say goodbye to their daughter.  The adoption process has changed so much that they now have to make two trips before they are able to bring her home.  Unfortunately, they have no idea how long they will have to wait to return to bring her home forever.  I can’t imagine having been able to visit with Sophie and then having to leave her for who knows how long.  It is heartbreaking to even consider.

The other hard part was a miscommunication with the husband/brother that adored Matt.  I was trying to figure out how many nannies were not working today so that I could leave some jewelry for them and I kept asking about tomorrow (as in, haw many are working tomorrow?)  Apparently, both he and Matt thought that I meant we were returning tomorrow, but we are not.  He gave Matt several bear hugs before we drove away and I got a picture.  When Matt got back into the van he asked what time we were coming back tomorrow.  When I told him we weren’t coming back this week he was CRUSHED.  He felt so bad that he had led the man to believe that he was coming back – he was so disappointed.  Luckily we had a 2+ hour ride home too, so I left him alone with his thoughts and he finally fell asleep. 

After our long drive we had a little bit of downtime and then all climbed back into the vans to go to dinner at Island Breeze where we all devoured the delicious fajitas, chips and guacamole.  We are all a little burned out on snack bars and peanuts (lunch every day at the clinics) and pizza and pasta, so it was a refreshing change!  We are now back in the room and ready for bed.  Tomorrow is our first dental day in Korah – the village that is located within the trash dump of Addis and was originally started as a leper colony.  We will be serving many more patients tomorrow (with the delivery of the remaining dental supplies, God willing) and the conditions will be much harder to take in.  I’m off to bed to prepare.  

Friday, April 24, 2015

Day 4 - Tuesday - 9/27/11

Matt with his favorite driver.  I am just realizing I have no idea how to spell his name - Beniam?

 Korah #1 / Meskal / Mekush
Well, all the preparing in the world can’t possibly prepare you.  I know that these posts or pictures can’t possibly tell the story – the story of the sights, the smells and the moans and children shrieking.  Today was our first day in Korah.  This is a community that was originally started for all of the leprosy victims in Addis because they were cast out of their own families and communities.  There are mazes of corrugated tin huts side by side.  Our vans brought us through the maze to a community center called Hand to the Needy.  It was a simple building that we turned into our dental clinic – again, a sterilization area, a greeting area, 2 anesthesia spots and at least 4 dental areas.  Because of the missing equipment we were only extracting or handing out toothbrushes/toothpaste again. 
Waiting for dental care
The inside of a tin home within the compound
Dinner at Makush with Saba's children and some Thornes
Arriving in Korah and unloading the dental equipment
Beautiful kids all being so brave!
Ethiopia Smile kids on duty
Before the work begins with Holli, Mim & Glenda
Matt and his new buddies

Sallie and her newfound scarf-clad friends
Meskal bonfire
A man and his tools
Entertaining the crowd with bubbles
Today was the day that we all wore our Ethiopia Smile 2011 shirts. It is a very cool design in person, but for some reason it comes out looking all distorted in the pictures!  The people were all pretty patient waiting outside in the rain for their turns inside.  The younger kids did all crowd around the few windows to see what all the commotion was about inside, but that was the only light for the dentists, so that couldn’t last long.  I was surprised about how few people were truly deformed.  As this was originally a leper colony, I expected many more people with missing fingers or distorted faces or bodies (apparently that was more common last year).  The things that did stick with me were the smells and the amount of dirt.  Some of these people spend their day rummaging through all of the garbage brought to the city dump, so the smells were overwhelming at some points.  The dentists said that it was much worse in the close proximity of the patients’ mouths, as you might imagine.  Despite the level of dirt, the patients were so respectful of their surroundings.  We were having people lying down on very thin benches and nearly everyone took off their shoes and moved the sheet that was on the bench out of the way of their feet.  Again, some of the people looked so scared, so my job as patient buddy was so keep them company throughout the entire process.  Sometimes that meant holding their hands and letting them know it was ok, sometimes it meant hugging them or wiping the tears from their cheeks or sweat from their brow.  There were several times where it meant holding their baby while they got their shots or had their tooth pulled - usually away from their direction so that the baby wouldn’t cry harder than they did.  For the people who had to sit upright on the bench for anesthesia, it also meant holding his or her head to keep it steady for the shots.  When it was a child it often meant holding them down with two or three others so his or her squiggling around wouldn’t hurt them or get in the dentist’s way.  One boy about 6 or 7 came with his grandmother.  I immediately placed him on my lap and sat right next to the grandmother on the bench.  She took one look at me and then asked the biggest driver (they were acting as our interpreters) to come hold him rather than me.  It’s a good thing she knew her grandson, because it took all three of us to hold him down for one shot.  Of course you can imagine what the screams did for the people who were waiting outside and couldn’t see what was going on!

I probably had my hardest moment today.  A group of about five women came in together with babies.  I took one of them who was about 30.  Someone else held the baby in a separate baby while I brought her for her extractions.  She needed two teeth out, but it took a very long time.  She had a heart condition, so we had to make sure that she took some antibiotics before and she took all of her medicine.  She looked very sickly and she couldn’t lay down in a very comfortable pose because she had trouble breathing while she was on her back.  I don’t think that the anesthetic ever set in because while the doctor was literally digging her two rotted teeth out she was writhing in pain and squeezing my hands as hard as she could.  The extractions must have taken at least 20-30 minutes and I don’t think she ever got numb.  By the time we were done she was sweating and tears were streaming down her face.  Especially with a heart condition, getting the rotten teeth out was absolutely necessary for her health, but to see her pain was horrible.  After I let her rest for a bit I brought her to get her antibiotics, pain medication, toothbrush and toothpaste and then back to the circle of mothers with babies.  She took her baby back and had the saddest look in her eyes.  As I looked around the circle, I realized that these babies were all severely malnourished.  One was being unwrapped to be rewrapped - the babies are all always wrapped up so tight with so many blankets I don’t know how they can possibly regulate their own temperature.  One of my teammates told me that that particular baby was 22 months.  The baby could not have weighed more than 10 or 15 pounds.  That is when I lost it.  Between the pain endured by the mother and the sight of these babies, I practically ran to the corner.  I didn’t want any of the Ethiopians to see me, so I turned a chair into the corner and just sobbed into an extra shirt I brought.  Luckily, no one noticed me with the noise level so high.  I could barely catch my breath.  I know we’ve all seen those pictures of starving children on television, but I know I have never seen another human being in such terrible shape.

We had brought some formula to give to the director of the community center, so we ended up opening some of the cans and starting to feed the bottles.  We had no bottles and these babies couldn’t hold more than drops in at a time.  A few of the team brought them outside to a covered hut and taught the mothers how to mix the formula.  They gave them some formula and bottled water to feed them for 24 hours.  The mothers came back the next day and you could already see the brightness return to these babies’ faces.  We rationed out enough for each baby for a week, and the mothers are going to return each week to get more for the babies.  If they sell the formula or don’t show, these babies will not survive for much longer, so we can only pray that they do what’s best for these children.

After seeing over 200 patients, we had to start packing up.  There were lots of kids hanging around to just watch the white people and see if we had anything to give away.  Matt went outside and blew bubbles for them to chase and we gave out gum (sugar-free of course), tic tacs and stickers.  Even having their own possession like a sticker meant so much to them.  We gave colored handkerchiefs to some of the women and they were incredibly thankful. 

On the way back to the hotel we saw everyone tying sticks, special yellow flowers and dried leaves into tall towers with a cross made of sticks on the top.  Tonight was the start of the holiday Meskal.  I never quite fully understood it’s significance, so I will have to look it up.  Basically at sundown the towers were lit and they burned all across the city (and maybe country?).  We had our own little Meskal celebration on the side of the hotel with music, special bread and traditional Ethiopian dancing before dinner.  We ate at a restaurant/art gallery called Makush in the city.  They had some really cool paintings throughout the store and many of us ended up buying pieces for home.  The artwork was very cool (many of what I would call traditional Ethiopian style paintings) and the prices were so reasonable that I couldn’t resist! 

On our way home from dinner you could barely breathe from all the smoke from the burning towers, even more so than usual since the city air is usually filled with diesel fumes and smoke anyway.

After we got home, a bunch of us stayed downstairs by the bar for a long discussion about religion, God and faith.  It was intense, emotional, and enlightening to say the least.  This may have been one of my favorite parts of the trip for many reasons.  The views shared that night were all very personal, but were also so different than what I’ve heard in other similar discussions before.  I knew the Ethiopians would tug (yank?) at my heartstrings, but my teammates from around the country (and Europe) have won my heart way more than I ever expected in a very short period of time!  Pretty late into the night we all finally went to bed, but I have to say I did more tossing, turning and thinking than sleeping that night!

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Day 5 - Wednesday - 9/28/11

Korah / Shopping by Post Office / Cloud 9
Today was very similar to yesterday in that we were in the same location and saw many in the community of Korah.  Today was different in that there were benches worth of patients waiting upon our arrival!

Here is Matt helping feed a select group of kids from Korah.  They come to the community center for one meal a day right near where we had the dental clinic set up.  There are also five or six mothers with infants in the back to whom we were providing formula.  One of the mothers had a child 22 months old that could not have weighed more than 10 pounds.  It was heartbreaking.  But even seeing them the next day after some formula, his face seemed brighter.  We left a ton of formula that will be rationed out to them over several months.

We ended a little early today so that we could preserve the remaining dental equipment and medications for the third day.  We all headed to a group of little bodegas to do some shopping.  Supposedly, they like to bargain, but I find it so hard because everything is so incredibly cheap to begin with, and then when you realize how much more important 30 birr (~$2) is to them, I just can’t bring myself to care about a further bargain!

We ended the day with a big group feast at a restaurant called Cloud 9.  It was a lot of Chinese food, which was delicious.  They’ve done such a good job with all the meals – so much variety, and our stomachs have handled it all really well so far.  The restaurant was in a big mall, which was the cleanest, newest building I’ve seen in all of Ethiopia.   It’s always so weird to see more wealth in the rare pockets that I’ve seen it in such a destitute city.  I was so exhausted after staying up so late, so I was happy to crash early!

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Day 6 - Thursday - 9/29/11

Korah / Alert Leprosy Hospital / KVI / 2000 Habesha for Emily’s Birthday
Today was again pretty similar than the last two days.  For some reason we all agreed that there was far more screaming today.  I don’t know if it was because there were more children or what, but it was another tough day.  I was helping a 25-year-old guy today who happened to be right next to the window for both his shots and extraction.  His friends were all right outside the window.  As much as I think I was helping him by holding his hand (he was squeezing mine SO hard!), I think that added to the laughter of his friends.  These guys are supposed to be so macho, but they are in extreme pain and they have these girls guiding them through the procedures.  He was sweating profusely, and I’m sure he got an earful from his friends after they saw me wipe his brow while he recovered from getting his tooth pulled out.  Oh well, I’m sure they all had a good laugh together once his pain subsided!

Luckily Mike and Pam Mycoskie joined us today.  He is a physician and they are the parents of the man who started Toms shoes.  We had two different incidences that we may not have gotten through without them.  There was another 25-year-old guy that came in.  After he got his shots, he was sitting next to Mike in the waiting area and just passed out on the floor.  I saw it happening, but the part that was most noticeable was how hard his head hit the cement floor.  Some people said he was having a seizure, but I’m still not sure exactly what happened.  He was in rough shape for a little while, but we got some fresh water and some snacks in him and he ended up just fine.  It turns out that he hadn’t eaten in over 24 hours because he had no food to eat.  I’m not sure if he was more grateful for the two bananas and peanut butter crackers or the dentistry. 

Later another mother and baby had come in to check the mother’s teeth.  It turns out that the baby (only months old) had fallen into the fire (I’m guessing cooking fire?) and had severely burned her hand.  We unwrapped the extremely dirty cloths wrapped around the baby’s hand and that’s when most of the people had to turn away.  It was literally black and infected.  Unfortunately, we had absolutely nothing to help her clean it (or no knowledge of how to do it).  Pam was able to grab a taxi and bring the mother and child to a local clinic, and paid to get the wounds properly cleaned and dressed.  The difference in how the hand was obviously striking and I can only imagine the long-term effects of that one small gesture.

We finished up the day at about 2 pm and headed to Alert Hospital, which is the main medical facility for Leprosy in Addis.  The reason it is always a stop in the itinerary (we had come here when we came four years ago) is because these men and women with severely deformed hands make the most beautiful linens and crafts and sell it in a gift shop on the hospital grounds.  Last time I came we bought tablecloths and napkins, etc, and this time I got a very cool wooden necklace and some Christmas ornaments.  The women are SO happy to have visitors and to just hold your hand and have you help spin the yarn.  One woman pointed to her friend sitting next to her and motioned that she was blind.  She kept gesturing to me to kiss her blind friend’s cheeks.  I think these people have little to no human contact.  Just grabbing her head and kissing her two cheeks may have produced the biggest smile that I have encountered on this entire trip!

Glenda learning how to spin the yarn
After our quick stop at Alert Hospital we headed to Kingdom Vision International, which is the orphanage where the Alexander’s first Ethiopian son had been three years ago.  Given that there aren’t really addresses like we have at home, we did get pretty lost, but finally found someone who knew where it was.  A man literally ran ahead of us through the streets of the neighborhood to guide us right to the door!  The kids were very excited to have us visit - sorry again that I can’t post pictures, but it is for the good of the kids.  There were babies up to tweens living in the house and they were all happy to receive all the typical trinkets – headscarves, t-shirts, candy, stickers, etc.  As with each orphanage we have visited, a few of the team members became attached very quickly to particular children.  It is such a comfort to know that most of these children have already been matched with a family or will be soon.  We had another coffee ceremony and did a lot of dancing – from worship songs to “Head, shoulders, knees and toes” - everyone had fun!

After our busy day we all prepared for Emily’s 40th birthday celebration at 2000 Habesha, a traditional Ethiopian restaurant.  For some reason I haven’t had Ethiopian food for a long time (we don’t have many good options near us) and I was thinking that I didn’t like it.  I was wrong – it was delicious!  I had the benefit of going through the buffet line next to a native Ethiopian, so I managed to skip over the raw lamb and other things that didn’t really appeal to me, so that might have saved me. Normally I find the injera (the spongy, sour, pancake-like bread that also serves as your utensils) to taste too much of vinegar, but this was so good.  Luckily, it is totally acceptable (and expected) for you to sop up every last drop of your meal with the bread because it would have been hard not to!

We were entertained by traditional Ethiopian dancing, which involves moves that don’t seem physically possible (especially for the neck) and the attempt at traditional Ethiopian dancing by many of our teammates.  All kidding aside, anyone who got up in front of everyone did a great job and I’m just glad they took one for the team (Matt included!).  We all got to sing to Emily as her birthday cake arrived with candles that seemed more like full-on bottle rockets!  Many of the men (ok, and women) were awed by the presence of Liya Kebede, a supermodel in the US that is originally from Ethiopia, who joined us for dinner.  It was kind of funny to see everyone wanting pictures with her – she was so gracious and a great sport!

Tamara, Holli, Glenda and I on our way to the birthday feast

Carys & Matt

Happy Birthday Em!

Our incredibly gracious hosts - Emily & Moody

Anyway, after lots of fun, we all went home to crash and prepare for the last few days.