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It’s hard for LaDonna Mann to remember what life was like before she learned about the plight of thousands of orphans in the African nation of Kenya.
As curator of the JAARS Museum of the Alphabet in Waxhaw, Mann spends her days informing the public about the varied histories of alphabets and languages. But she experienced another language firsthand several years ago while living with her late husband Bill in Nairobi, the capital of Kenya.
Her husband was working on a computer program for a translation of the Bible’s New Testament into the Suba language, the primary language of Kenya’s Suba people. That was when they met Naphtaly Mattah, one of the first Africans to learn the program from her husband.
As it turns out, Mattah became instrumental years later in the creation of a school for Kenyan orphans, which Mann herself would sponsor.
“He (Naphtaly) saw many children isolated by AIDS, including many from fishing villages,” Mann said. “Many people and families have been devastated by AIDS there, with children being orphaned and just left to themselves.”
In 2002, Naphtaly and his family started bringing some of those abandoned children into their home, which was just a small mud hut. As the number of children swelled, Mattah’s family soon ran out of room.
That’s when they started looking for help with the growing orphan problem. Mattah contacted Calvary Church in Charlotte, a church that had turned his Suba translation project into a mission project. It had been helping him with the project since the mid-1990s and Mattah hoped it would help again.
After discussions with the church, they decided to begin work on an orphanage to help feed, clothe and house some of the displaced children. Through a joint effort, they eventually created the Gethsemane Garden Christian Centre, a school for orphans on Mfangano Island in Lake Victoria, Kenya. The school has a board of directors in the United States and Kenya.
In 2003, the school opened its doors for 100 children in kindergarten through third grade.
Today, the school houses 424 children in kindergarten through ninth grade.
Mann said the school has become so successful that it now opens a new grade every year as the children get older.
Students at the school attend classes for three months and then take a one-month trip back home, with school in session starting in April, August and December.
“They go back to their village during that time to connect with any family or friends and be part of the village,” she said.
Mann has been making regular visits to Kenya and the school since its inception. She stopped briefly when her husband died in 2004, but began making annual trips again in 2005.
“I do a lot of things there. Sometimes I just visit, though I also do vacation Bible school and once I even participated in a women’s conference,” she said.
Mann plans to return to Kenya soon, not only to visit the orphanage, but to witness the completion of the Suba translation project. She expects there will be a dedication of the newly translated New Testament sometime this winter or next spring.
Through her time with the orphanage, Mann has become a sponsor for three students, two 13-year-old girls named Laila and Margaret, as well as an 8-year-old boy named Lamek. By giving $30 a month per student, Mann helps them have food, uniforms, books and a place to live.
“Many of them come with absolutely nothing,” she said. “Not even a change of clothing.”
She also supports three adults associated with the orphanage, including Chef John, who makes sure students receive three meals every day. Mann has sponsored John for almost three years.
One moment stands out particularly well for Mann from her experience with the students. She said it involved a project where students were asked to give back to someone in their community.
“It was last year during one of their breaks, when some of the older kids built a hut for a widow,” Mann said. “It was an eye-opening experience for them even though they’re poor as well. They built this widow her own home.”
Mann is actively trying to recruit more sponsors to the cause, hoping to save even more orphans in Kenya. She will be attending a fundraising event for the Gethsemane Garden Christian Centre on Dec. 7 at the Renaissance Charlotte Suites Hotel in Charlotte. Donations from the event will go toward the school and will help cover those students and staff who aren’t sponsored. Featured speakers include Sen. Elizabeth Dole and center director Naphtaly Mattah.
For details, or to make a reservation for the event, call the center at (704) 542-5225.
Want to help?
The Gethsemane Garden Christian Centre will hold a fundraising event Monday, Dec. 7, at the Renaissance Charlotte Suites Hotel, 2800 Coliseum Centre Drive, Charlotte.
Donations will go toward the school for orphans in Lake Victoria, Kenya.
There will be a reception at 6:15 p.m., followed by dinner at 7 p.m. Speakers are Elizabeth Dole and center director Naphtaly Mattah.
To make a reservation for the event, call the center at (704) 542-5225.