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This radio host brought hope—and water—to an African camp, all because of an e-mail she received.
It was just like any other hectic evening. I was on the air, broadcasting my radio show, taking requests, chatting with listeners, playing dedications and scrolling through e-mails—when you're on air 35 hours a week and you've got eight kids, you've got to multitask, like it or not.
I stopped my cursor on an e-mail that looked like one of those we've all gotten—you know, someone in a faraway place begging for help, in an unusually solicitous manner.
The sender claimed to be a woman named Winifred at the Buduburam refugee camp in Ghana. She needed money to care for three small children. I was about to hit delete—it had to be a scam—but something stopped me.
I wrote back: "Who are you? How did you get my e-mail address?" Suddenly I was corresponding with someone a world away from Seattle.
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Turned out it was Winifred's cousin writing, because she's illiterate. He was in a chat room seeking help for the children, and someone mentioned that I'd adopted African-American kids and might make a donation.
My mind and spirit were restless when I got home that night. Why me? I could hardly sleep. Around 3 a.m., I bolted straight up in bed. A guy named Rich—the president of World Vision, a Christian humanitarian organization—popped into my head. I dragged myself out of bed and wrote to him.
"This is going to sound weird, but I'm forwarding you some e-mails I've been exchanging with a person in a Ghana refugee camp." I knew nothing about Africa—didn't know where Ghana was—and he was an expert.
Rich called at 8:30 a.m. "I just read your e-mail. There's a man standing in my office who not only knows where that camp is, but he used to work there."
What were the chances? "Rich, I want to find out if this family is for real and if I can sponsor them." Within a week World Vision staffers went to the camp and found that Winifred and her three siblings had escaped the civil war in Liberia, and were starving. Rich asked if I'd come to the World Vision office for a meeting.
I took a seat in the conference room. "I'd like to make a grant," I said, "to help this family get food and a place to live." No problem, they said. Great, I thought. Done. I got up to leave. Then someone spoke up. "You've helped five people in the camp," he said. "What are you going to do about the other 42,000?"
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"Not my problem," I said. "They didn't write to me." I stepped out of the office, and it was like a two-by-four hit me on the head. God spoke loud and clear. What did you just say? I started to cry, and walked back in. "I can't believe I said that. I am so sorry. What can I do?"
"See for yourself," someone said.
I nodded. "Okay. How do I do that?"
"Go." To Africa? What I've always loved about working in radio is its intimacy, the way it brings people together across great distances, the way it connects us. But Africa just seemed so distant. Seattle is about as far from Africa as anywhere in the United States can be.
And I'd never been anywhere—except once to Mexico 20 years ago, and a couple trips to Canada. I didn't even have a passport! But I got my passport. I got a visa. I got my shots. And then I got on a plane and flew to West Africa.
I was excited, and incredibly nervous. I had a picture in my head of what I thought I'd encounter.
The reality of Buduburam refugee camp was nothing that I could have ever prepared myself for. I found Winifred and her family among more than 42,000 others, a great mass of humanity crammed into 140 acres, with no clean water, no toilets.
Families of six to a dozen living in 10-by-12 shacks, with no beds, no chairs, few blankets. Unaccompanied kids running around. Grinding poverty everywhere I looked, and life-threatening illnesses: HIV/AIDS. Malaria. Tuberculosis. Water-borne diseases.