Open House To Bring Home Reality Of Suffering African Children
Story & Photos by Nicholas Johnson
For four hours this Wednesday evening (Sept. 1st from 4pm – 8pm), members of Orphan Relief and Rescue invite the Burien community to their new home next to Lake Burien Presbyterian Church to imagine the lives of starving children thousands of miles away.
Like those found throughout the organization’s website (www.orphanreliefandrescue.org), photographs of orphans will hang prominently on the backdrop of bullet-riddled, hut-like walls, and hosts Tim and Rebecca Pratt will don traditional African garb.
The Pratts said American apathy and relative affluence make it difficult for many to identify with and do something for struggling children in war-torn countries such as Liberia. For them, it wasn’t until they saw the suffering first hand that they knew more direct aid was needed.
The Pratts spent more than half of their married life living in a secluded suburb 80 miles east of Dallas, eight years of which they devoted to Mercy Ships, a four-decade old charity providing medical aid to distressed port communities around the world. While docked on the coast of Benin, in West Africa, the Pratt’s traveled three-hours inland to find backyard graves containing the bodies of dead orphans without death certificates.
“There was no death certificate needed for an orphan because nobody cares when an orphan dies,” Rebecca Pratt said. “So that’s when we started seeing the magnitude of no child protection at all for these kids that lose their parents and end up in orphanages.”
After operating their faith-based humanitarian effort in Texas for three years, Tim Pratt says they realized growth would remain a challenge. With everything from movie theaters to airports hours away from their ministry, not to mention the great number of competing ministries surrounding them, the Pratt’s chose to look toward a more receptive community.
“For us as social entrepreneurs, connecting with friends and families in that area was tough,” Tim said. “To them, we’re just another ministry. We’re the new kid on the block.”
Now, the Pratts say they are excited to once again be living and working in the Northwest, where they both grew up.
Efforts in Africa
While many large organizations such as Federal Way-based World Vision provide aid to hundreds of orphanages, many go untouched because they don’t meet standards for government certification, which opens the door for funding from international aid organizations such as UNICEF. The Pratts’ organization aims to bridge the gap between certified orphanages and those with a lack of needed resources by providing food, repairing buildings and teaching self-dependence. “How do you get certified if you don’t have your health?” Rebecca felt compelled to ask after learning that large aid organizations were refusing to help children in non-certified orphanages.
She said the governments of countries such as Benin and Liberia have mandated that large aid organizations don’t work with non-certified orphanages because the government can’t determine which orphanages are corrupt. Rebecca feels at least 50 percent of the existing orphanages are operated by corrupt directors interested primarily in exploiting cheap labor. In fact, she said the relationship she has garnered with those countries’ social welfare offices has allowed her to collect and present evidence of corruption that leads to the eventual closing down of questionable orphanages.
About eight organization members live and work at orphanages in Liberia and Benin, and Tim said when those volunteers return, they are often tired and in need of a place to stay. He said city councilmember Gordon Shaw is one of many who have expressed interest in opening their doors to warn out volunteers.
“When they are away from home and able to come back to the home office here, it allows them that opportunity to find rest, maybe a cup of coffee or glass of wine at the 909 and even a meal,” Tim said.
While the Pratts seek out partnerships with other U.S.-based organizations, they said more often than not promises to provide aid turn out hollow, which has forced them to be strict about the projects to which they will commit.
“One way we protect ourselves is that we will not do a project without the funding being raised,” Tim said. “We want [the orphanages] to know that we don’t have an excess of funds.”
Role of Religion
While their number one goal is to foster health and self-dependence, spirituality inevitably plays a part. Simply put, the Pratts have observed that children in Africa are worthless. They’ve found that Voodoo, the national religion in countries such as Benin, has paralyzed Africans with the fear of being cursed, thus stripping motivation to challenge such practices as sacrificial killings. In their year-round Child Development Program the Pratts introduce the “God of love.”
“Here in America we don’t need God a whole lot because we have everything,” Rebecca said. “There, without the prevision of God, they die and they know it. Everything is spiritual in Africa. So without the element of the God of love, there’s no value system.”
She said the program aims to teach African children that they are unique, special, loved and worthy. However, Tim said unlike many missionary aid organizations, their efforts are primarily focused on action rather than preaching. He said with so many people suffering, a non-spiritual volunteer would easily become overwhelmed.
“It’s frustrating for people who go over to serve no matter what they believe because the good that you do is never enough,” he said.
“Eventually, they see beyond that and they see that there must be something more than that.”
By instilling generations of African children with the conception of a loving God, the Pratts said they hope to break a cycle of devaluing and killing children. Rebecca said she is regularly cursed and ridiculed by native Africans who don’t know how she could dismiss Voodoo for Christianity.
“We can come in, we can do our job, we can address all these issues and I am cursed regularly,” she said. “They do not like the white woman that comes in, and every issue is addressed and the government is now giving us full authorization to do what we want to do because they know we are able to accomplish what they cannot because of their fear. That is very hard to explain here in America, but it’s very real there.”
Tim said he hopes today’s open house will offer an opportunity to bring that world home so people in Burien can begin to sympathize with children struggling in a very different culture.
“Creating the walls and photos, creating my vision as an artist is being able to create a way for people to see it,” he said.
From 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. at 1416 SW 151st Street (next to Lake Burien Presbyterian Church; see map below), the Pratts hope to show the Burien community what they have experienced in their many trips to Benin and Liberia. If that’s not enough, the Pratts are organizing a series of 10-day vision trips to visit orphanages in Africa in spring 2011. Tim said a about 30 people have signed up for a 14-person trip, forcing him to rethink how he offers those trips. Either way, he said travelers will need to raise funds to make the trip.
“People have asked, ‘Why Burien?,’” he said. “And I always say, ‘because we see this is a community that wants to step out beyond themselves’ and we want to assist in that.”