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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]