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Thursday, November 19, 2009

When the History Books Are Written

By Alexa Valavanis

I’m just grateful we found water on the moon in 2009. If we had waited another month to find ice on the lunar surface I’m afraid the entire decade could have been deemed, ‘The Great Pause’; as in a cease in progress; a stop in forward movement; a freeze.

It began with the great trepidation of Y2K, a fear that now appears more like profound foreshadowing than a likely reality. But who among us, save the doomsayers and the conspiracy theorists, could have fathomed the ‘00s?

Who could have imagined a deception that would start a conflict in Iraq but result in a war with no foreseeable end? Which one of us could have predicted an economic meltdown that would split the citizens of the world’s superpower into those whose nest eggs dissolved and those who would struggle to buy a dozen eggs?

There is no doubt that the ‘00s will be a decade the historians, and poets alike, offer extensive prose. However, when the history books are written, I believe, something will emerge as a far greater consequence to the long-term strength and health of this nation than the economic and institutional mayhem.

Today, we are witnessing a movement, from Maine to California, to deny basic rights to citizens of the United States, while preserving and protecting the same rights for others citizens. Simply put, gays and lesbians do not have the same right to marry and the state-protected benefits that go along with marriage as their heterosexual counterparts.

Allowing the majority to determining the rights of our minorities through ballot measures is a betrayal to our republic. To say nothing about the duplicitous campaign against gay rights that is planting deceit and lies in our town halls across America.

To put it plainly:

1) There is no correlation between the rights of gays to marry and school indoctrination of our children. This is a lie.

2) There is no correlation between protecting the rights of gays to marry and the tax-exempt status of churches. This is also a lie.

Furthermore, regarding the method of popular vote being utilized: When did we decide we could or should give our majority the opportunity to vote on the basic rights of our minorities?

In better words, James Madison’s states in the Federal Paper 51,

"It is of great importance in a republic not only to guard the society against the oppression of its rulers but to guard one part of the society against the injustice of the other part. If a majority be united by a common interest, the rights of the minority will be insecure.”

Consider what progress we would have made in civil rights if it had been contingent on a popular vote? How ludicrous it sounds to ask for a popular vote to determine whether or not to integrate our schools.

Our basic rights are not voted on in America. Our basic rights are not up for election. Our basic rights are not awarded to some citizens and denied to other citizens based on similarities or differences that might exist. That is precisely why we are America!

In the end the U.S. Supreme Court will rule on the matter of marriage equality for all U.S. citizens, a ruling that will be based on our U.S. Constitution and not state constitutions or a popular vote.

This is why our courts were created; to protect minorities against the unfair will of majorities. But we know even the highest court of our land, ruled on the wrong side of equality at one time when in 1857 the US Supreme Court led by Chief Justice Robert B. Taney, declared that all blacks – slaves as well as free – were not and could not become citizens of the United States.

So how long will it take to get this right? The winter of 2009 is quickly approaching. The historians are preparing to name and lock up the decade for eternity. So I ask you, what could be more damaging to the future of our nation; a nation built on the very will for freedom and individual rights, than to seize its heart?

There is no war we could wage, no economic meltdown we could suffer, no infrastructure collapse we could endure that would cause more damage to our nation than to rape (one ballot measure at a time) the very body of freedoms we have fought so tirelessly to have – and to hold.

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Thursday, October 1, 2009

Children of the Street

By, Alexa Valavanis

It was a pleasant but ordinary morning in Chico. One could sense the end of summer as fall impatiently waited on the porch. A gentle coolness hung in the air. In households all around town coffee gurgled on its descent into the glass pot as children pleaded for five more minutes with their dreams. People young, old, and in between awoke to do whatever it is they do on Wednesdays in September.

I was off to the Foundation. I had arranged for Sherry and Gary Holbrook to drop in for a visit. Our paths had crossed a few years prior to this morning through our international humanitarian work.

Sherry is the founder and director of Orphan Care International (OCI); a Chico-based nonprofit dedicated to assisting orphans and needy children around the world. One of the primary projects of OCI is a children’s orphanage called the Docsek Home in Mazabuka, Zambia. Some might call it a twist of fate that brought Sherry and Gary to Mazabuka in the first place.

In 2003, Sherry was in a quiet room at the Heathrow, London airport on her journey home from Ndola, Zambia. At the time, she was volunteering for a Canadian-based nonprofit working with orphanages there. After many months with that organization, Sherry realized the western decision-makers were quite detached from the children’s reality in the villages.

“The children would need shoes, and decision-makers thousands of miles from Africa would decide against shoes, strictly based on policy,” Sherry explained. “Worst of all, they were slowly westernizing the children without an understanding of the long-term implications. How would the children reintegrate into society when they left the orphanage?”

It was in this tired and slightly jaded state that Sherry heard her name being called from across the quiet room in the airport. It was a woman she knew from her international humanitarian circle. This woman was on her way back to the states after visiting an orphanage called the Doscek Home in Mazabuka.

For the next many hours, Sherry would learn all about the work at the Doscek Home, and the incredible dedication of its owners, Shern and Tabitha Kaumba.

By the time Sherry landed again on US soil her concept and motivation to establish Orphan Care International would already be in flight. She was determined to help and help differently than her Canadian counterparts. She was eager to get home and share with Gary what she had learned about the Doscek Home and the young Zambians, Shern and Tabitha, who ran it.

~ Mazabuka, Zambia (19 years earlier)

At the age of 12, Shern Kaumba was a child of the streets. His father had six children, yet he was the lone child of another mother. During those first 12 years of life, Shern was ostracized, ridiculed and eventually pushed out of his home.

“I had no choice but to try and make it on my own. I slept on the streets. There was no schedule. I ate if I could find food. If there was no food, I went hungry,” Shern explained.

Today, the 31-year-old Shern, shared with a quiet tone, details about his youth and the days and nights living on the streets of Mazabuka. In fact, his wife, Tabitha, now 26, also recalled seeing the young Shern on their shared village streets when she was a child.

“Even before she knew me, she cared for me,” Shern gently shared. “I remember Tabitha as a teenager, coming by and offering me food.”

After many months on the streets, feeling rejected and alone, Shern, just barely a teenager, decided to end his suffering.

“I tried three times to kill myself. I tried to overdose with drugs, then to be hit by a train, and finally I decided to throw myself in front of a truck.”

Yet, each time this boy eluded death. “After the third try I thought to myself maybe there was a reason I was still alive.”

With tears still wet on his cheeks, after being pulled to safety and away from the grill of the oncoming truck, Shern heard a woman calling to him. This would be the moment that changed his life forever.

“A car pulled up beside me and I heard a soft voice say, ‘What is wrong? Can I help?’”

That angelic voice was from a woman he would come to know as Sister Angela Daily. The woman on that same day would ask Shern what it was he needed and when the teenager replied with “an education” - it would be so.

Sister Daily not only paid for Shern to attend boarding school but university too. It was during these years that this son man finally learned what it meant to be loved and cared for. Shern would go on to get a teaching internship, and find the conviction to help other children living on the streets.

“There were children in the classroom that just looked differently from the others. There was a hurt inside of them,” Shern recalled. “They reminded me of where I had come from. They reminded me of my own suffering.”

That realization was the beginning of his work with orphans. A short time later, Shern would marry the woman who as a child brought him food on the streets.

That was six years ago.

“When I married Shern he was already caring for two orphans. Six months later we heard about a baby called Joshua.” Tabitha’s eyes lit up while letting Joshua’s name slip out of her mouth. She then shared the story of Joshua as we visited in my NVCF office.

“I was visiting a compound when I heard that a baby’s mother was near death. The baby’s father had died during the mother’s pregnancy,” Tabitha explained.

“There was no family left to care for the child, so I took him home. In fact, I took him straight to my parents’ home, and for three days they taught me how to care for a baby. Then I went back to Shern and our work began.”

Their work has not ceased.

Today, Shern and Tabitha care for 13 children at the Docsek Home, and have dreams of caring for many more. With new land they’ve purchased with the help of their “mother and father” - the Holbrooks -- they are working hard to make this dream come true.

“We’ve dedicated our lives to make sure no one else becomes a child of the streets,” Shern concluded.

[Originally published on; Republished in the UpState Business Journal, Oct. 2009]

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Promising Not to Forget

By, Alexa Valavanis

A hot summer evening in Chico set the backdrop for a conversation I had waited many years to have. The last time I was with Dr. Godwin Orkeh and Christian Nix, we were in a house built around an avocado tree on the hillsides of San Marco. This tree sat on the crust of Lake Atitlan, Guatemala.

That was seven years ago.

Sitting together again, my mind was flooded with memories of trekking up and down the mountainsides serving the indigenous, listening to their needs, and helping in ways we didn’t know we could - until we did.

However, on this August night, we rested comfortably in lounge chairs on my back patio, and reflected on the journeys we’d been on together and the near decade spent apart.

Godwin, the MD of our lot, had come to visit after finishing his fifth stint in Darfur, Sudan. He had gone in and out of the war-torn, refugee-saturated regions wearing badges from numerous NGO’s including Relief International, World Health Organization and the United Nations. Godwin helped those he could, and promised that the world had not forgotten their plight. His work was never completed but he slept peacefully knowing he was doing all he could.

As the sun made way for the evening stars, Godwin pulled out his baby blue United Nations passport, something I had only seen in the movies. He pointed out stamps that provided doorways to distant lands - Afghanistan, Pakistan and Somalia. And, with each stamp he shared stories that were harder and harder to fathom. Kidnappings. Malnutrition. Malaria. Death. He spoke about the pain of losing children whose lives could be saved for less than $4.

We cried a little. We laughed a little. We hardly noticed dawn arrive.

Christian, the Chinese medicine man, was in between his barefoot clinic in Chicago and his practice in San Marcos. He works in the village hospital and continues to teach the science of medicine in concert with the art of healing. After learning that Godwin had arranged a trip to Chico, he postponed his journey south for the weekend so we could be together.

Christian shared tales in Latin America that I longed to remember. The way time sits still. The way people celebrate what they have, rather than focus on what they do not. The understanding of abundance and generosity that comes so naturally for those people our world calls “poor”.

I asked if there was anything they would like to do while on US soil. After sitting quietly for some time, Godwin said, “I would like to share what is happening in Darfur. I would like my promise to the children to be true, for the world not to forget what is happening there.”

I knew our community would be eager to listen. More than that, I knew something Godwin would later tell me he never dreamed possible; we not only listened - we cared!

After numerous public radio spots and interviews with newspapers we had a party. Godwin and Christian got to meet, literally, dozens of people that are working to help others around the globe.

They met local independent business owner, Sherry Holbrook who supports an orphanage in Zambia. They met former swim instructor, Shirley Adams, who builds water-wells in developing countries. They met Manoah Mohanraj, a local public health manager, who also runs an orphanage in Southern India. They met a room full of Enloe Hospital’s doctors and nurse practitioners that travel around the world providing medical care -folks that care so deeply about out brothers and sisters around the world. They also met handfuls of community members who support causes here, at home.

As the weekend came to an end, Godwin and Christian walked up to me and said, “We know now.”

“What’s that?” I replied.

“Of all the places in the world you’ve been, we now know why you decided to make Chico home.”

[Published in the Upstate Business Journal, Sept. 09]

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

It's Not a Gay Issue

By, Alexa Valavanis

In a small rural town called Chico, California, about a 100 people gathered to support, protest, celebrate or mourn the California Supreme Court ruling on Proposition 8. I was there. So were many of my dear friends and colleagues. The relentless Northern California sun welcomed the rally's participants. The summer's modest afternoon traffic trickled by. The University students were long gone, and local pub patrons had just begun to tiptoe into their venues of choice. Presenters from as far away as Utah took the newly renovated city plaza stage to share their stories; their particular vantage point about this day - on this day.

However, for me, it started many months before.

It was clear autumn night, on the fourth day of November, two-thousand and eight. Unprecedented numbers of Americans waited in stretched lines to cast their votes, many young and old, engaging in our political process for the first time. As the sun bid farewell to the day and the electors began casting their golden votes, here at home and around the globe, people paused to listen. If you were quiet enough you could actually hear “hope” bounce around the atmosphere; like the sound of a sunrise or the first bloom after a long winter.

Many believe Senator Obama took the White House by a national mandate, commingling the old and predictable map of red and blue states into a sea of purple. A sea made up of people of all colors, religions, sexual orientations, politics and views. Yet, they had one history-making commonality on that November night. They chose an intellectual who wouldn’t shy away from being intelligent to appeal to the average. They chose a man encouraging unity not division; a leader promoting hope and not fear.

For many Obama embodies change. He stands where he stands today as a black man, not because he is black. I echo the thoughts of so many others when I say, he inspires me. I am even prouder today to be an American than I have been for the past thirty-two years.

Yet, amid all of this light there was a shadow on that cloudless day.

On the very same ballot that illustrated the pinnacle of change for a nation that once allowed slavery of a people based on the color of their skin, and denied equal rights to fifty percent of its population because of their gender - our largest state voted “yes” on a proposition of discrimination.

The most painful factor regarding the passing of Proposition 8 is not simply the narrow margin that it passed by but the untruths and lies that drove people to “yes”.

Simply put, there is no correlation between protecting the right of gays to marry and new curriculum in schools. None. They used our children to get their “yes”. They misled our parents to get their "yes". There is no correlation between protecting the rights of gays to marry and the tax-exempt status of our churches. None. They used and misled people of faith to get their “yes”.

Moreover, how can two citizens of the same state have different rights under the same constitution? We certainly can not give the majority a way to discriminate against a minority through ballot measures. James Madison articulated it best in the Federalist Paper 51, when he wrote, "It is of great importance in a republic not only to guard the society against the oppression of its rulers but to guard one part of the society against the injustice of the other part. If a majority be united by a common interest, the rights of the minority will be insecure.”

Fortunately, our courts are here to protect minorities against the unfair will of majorities, if and when needed. Will they get this right eventually? We know that even the highest court of our land ruled on the wrong side of equality at one time. In 1857 when the US Supreme Court, led by Chief Justice Robert B. Taney, declare that all blacks – slaves as well as free – were not and could not become citizens of the United States. But, they found their way to justice eventually.

Still, even with my quiet faith that equality will prevail - I am perplexed.

Many people Obama’s camp rallied to vote on this historic Election Day, voted “yes for equality” at the top of the ticket, and “yes to discrimination” at the bottom of the ticket. Many of whom, know the plight of discrimination intimately. Must we learn each lesson of equality separately? Must we ourselves be discriminated against before we can rise up to fight for others?

If we’ve learned as a nation that separate is not equal, then why must we try and apply this broken logic again in pointing to civil unions as the solution to denying one group of citizens the right other citizens have. Equality does not have degrees; it either is or is not equal.

There will be a day when the children of this state look back and are amazed by the institutionalized inequality and discrimination that once existed in this land. Until that day, everyone who believes in equality must stand up and fight for it. This is not a gay issue this is a human rights issue.

[Originally Published on; Syndicated on]