flood

The Child Concern Foundation orphanage in the village of Mto-wa-Mbu is a tin-roofed, sun-bleached building that sits on the side of a dirt road. The 36 children who live here sleep in two bedrooms—two kids per bunk—and go to school in the attached classroom. There is no electricity. Meals are cooked in a large black pot over an open fire. Out back is a dry patch of dirt where clothes are hung and the children play. A handful of teachers work here, though they are often unpaid. When the rains come in November and again in March, the road turns into a river and muddy water spills into the orphanage, pooling on the dirt floors of the dormitories, ruining mattresses and leaving behind enormous rocks when the water recedes. This happens twice a year.

By car, Mto-wa-Mbu is about an hour and half away from Arusha, a city of over a million people and a popular starting point for tourists who come to Tanzania to safari in the Serengeti. To get to the wildebeest and lions of the endless plains from Arusha, tourists have to first go through Mto-wa-Mbu. And when the tourists come, the children of the orphanage hold out their hands—their livelihood supported solely by what falls into their upturned palms.

This is life for the children of the orphanage. Or, more accurately, this was life for the children of the orphanage.

batwa children

In 2011 Betsy Collard was in Mto-wa-Mbu on her way to a clinic that a friend had recently opened in northern Tanzania. She saw the green sign hanging from the sand-colored building and the children playing in front of it, but instead of easing her conscience by dropping a few dollars, she met with the directors of the orphanage and resolved to do more. Upon returning, she and Kathleen Cannon—KC  for short—established the nonprofit Friends of the Child Concern Foundation.  The co-founders were dedicated to improving the lives of the children and establishing a sustainable future for the orphanage. When the organization was planning their first major fundraising event in January 2013, they brought in Katie Cooney, MA ’92, MBA ’11.

“We didn’t exactly know what we were doing when it came to fundraising," Cannon said somewhat sheepishly. “It became clear to me very early in the meeting that Katie was the whole package, that she would be the conduit between the business side and the non-profit side.”

Cannon’s description of Cooney is apt. As a student in Saint Mary’s Trans-Global Executive MBA (T-GEMBA) Program, Cooney worked with organizations on the ground in Rwanda on an eco-tourism project. Her professional background is in marketing and fundraising; she spent 20 years in the field before earning her MBA. Together, Cooney and the Friends of Child Concern Foundation launched a fundraiser for 150 people at AutoVino in Menlo Park in April. The event was flawless. By the end of the night Friends of Child Concern Foundation had taken in over $60,000, more than double what they had expected.

new building

For Cooney, though, the success of the fundraiser went beyond dollars donated. For nearly 25 years she has been involved with orphanages around the world, including Japan, Tibet, Rwanda and now Tanzania. Her childhood taught her to have compassion.

“When I was a kid, I wasn’t particularly healthy,” said Cooney. “I spent a lot of time at the doctor’s office or at the hospital, and while I was there I saw other kids that were sick. I certainly wasn’t an orphan, but I feel like there was some part of me that can relate to feeling different as a kid, and that’s what these children are dealing with. They’re removed from their families for whatever reason—abuse, AIDS, the death of a parent—and they feel separate and alone.”

With the money raised in Menlo Park, the foundation purchased land away from road and the seasonal floods, and built two dormitories and a proper school house. A dining room and a functional kitchen are also in the works. To promote sustainable growth, fruit trees and livestock have been donated.

Katie with children

“The easy part is getting the buildings up,” said Collard. “The hard part is managing the operating costs going forward.”

Having Cooney in their corner should prove useful in this area as well. The T-GEMBA program from which Cooney graduated specializes in teaching students how to develop business models for people who earn less than $1 a day. There are plans for a grand opening of the revamped orphanage next summer—complete with a ribbon cutting ceremony— and Friends of Child Concern Foundation is currently working on a business strategy to keep their children off of the road and their hands out of the air. Cooney plans to be involved in both.  

“I love that something that I do may make things a bit better for someone else,” said Cooney. “I want to get another 36 kids in here once these ones leave. And then another 36 after that. And then another 36 after that…”

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