On the back of Malerie Pratt's hand, the phrase "cap and gown" is written in big, curvy handwriting as she scrolls through a slideshow on her laptop in early June. Just a few days later, she'll be graduating from Oregon State University's Cascades campus, and like other college graduates, Pratt has a lot on her mind. But it's not the typical worries of landing a job or the apprehension of venturing out on her own that her classmates might be experiencing.
What Pratt is thinking about is how she and her collaborator, Marlena Bellavia, are going to get the needed funding to keep the home for orphaned children they started four years ago in the African nation of Zambia. Back then, the Source profiled Pratt after she had just returned from Zambia and had intentions of building the home, and now what was once a dream, is a home to more than a dozen children. While many other college graduates are looking for their place in the world, the 24-year-old Pratt found her passion early on, helping to found Vima Lupwa (translated: "family home") when she was just 20 years old. Along with Bellavia, a Bendite who was born in Belgium, but raised largely in the Congo, Pratt has created an organization with a fully Bend-based board of directors, which is funded almost completely by Central Oregonians.
On the other side of the world, about as far as one could travel away from our mountain town without beginning to make his or her way back, is a roughly 1,200-square-foot house that 14 Zambian children and their two house parents call home. These 14 children are just a sliver of the estimated one million orphaned children in the disease- and poverty-stricken nation that have lost parents to HIV, malaria, or in some cases, arrived in the home as a result of severe abuse or neglect. The house might not look like much - it's a simple one-story brick structure - but Pratt says it gives the kids a chance at a life they'd almost certainly never see otherwise.
Pratt and Bellavia speak fondly and almost maternally of the children who live at Vima Lupwa. But Pratt also tells stories of how the children came to the home, and many of these stories are heartbreaking. She recounts the ordeal of Alick, now eight-years-old, but he looks like a four-year-old because of the malnutrition he experienced after his mother threw him in a garbage bin, wrapped in a plastic bag. After living with his father, which meant spending nights in bars and enduring physical and sexual abuse, Alick came to Vima Lupwa. He had trouble adjusting and continually asked for beer, leading the house parents to believe the child had become an alcoholic after having been fed beer in his early years.
"We get some of the worst social abuse cases from [government] social welfare," says Pratt.
She spotted this sort of extreme need for orphanages at a young age, having taken two years off after high school and began traveling, which is how she came to Zambia and eventually connected with a woman named Violet Membe, who along with her husband, Mwala Membe, serve as surrogate parents to the 14 children at Vima Lupwa. Over the last four years, Pratt has spent more than a year total in Zambia, heading back for summers and spring breaks, many times along with Bellavia - who she says was instrumental in getting the home built, occupied and running smoothly.
"Marlena, being raised over there, has the knowledge and sometimes I get frustrated and think that things are going slow, but she reminds me that this is Africa," says Pratt, of the cultural differences they encounter.
Bellavia is the yin to Pratt's yang when it comes to the management of the project. A French and German instructor at Central Oregon Community College, Bellavia, by her own assertion, is old enough to be Pratt's mother and says she adds a dash of realism when needed.
"We've been able to bring the naïve and dreamy point of view from Malerie, but I have more of an adult perspective. We're an awesome team because I grew up in Africa and know the culture, and she is full of ideas," says Bellavia.
Those ideas became a reality in December of 2006 when the Vima Lupwa home opened. The home cost the group $20,000 and was built from the ground up at a former garbage dump site. Wanting to keep the project locally focused, rather than a drop-in, drop-out project created by white faces that would never return, Vima Lupwa employed some 200 Zambians during the construction process. Involvong the community and embracing the Zambian culture is part of the non-profit's aim.
"We acknowledge the importance of letting people be themselves and we're not trying to impose a culture or way of life or religion," says Bellavia.
Following this ethos, the home is run by a Zambian couple, the Membes, and the children attend school with the rest of the community. There are expectations that the kids will keep up on their education and contribute to the household - which grows much of its own food - but they are not beholden to any Western cultural demands. As the project has advanced, Vima Lupwa has also reached out into the community helping locals set up small businesses, like one operation run by a group of disabled women who make and sell underwear.
Here in Bend, Vima Lupwa has found support from a community that supplies almost all of the roughly $900 per month required to keep the operation going. The group is not funded by grants - although Pratt and Bellavia aren't adverse to obtaining grants - but rather small donations funneled mostly from Bendites who either sponsor an individual child or the program as a whole through monthly contributions ranging from $10 per month to more than $150 per month.
Steve Douglas, who along with his wife Elyse, owns Douglas Fine Jewelry Design in downtown Bend, sits on the Vima Lupwa board of directors. His son went to high school with Pratt and when he read a story about her in the Source four years ago, he decided to get involved with the project. Douglas says there are plenty of non-profits in our area doing good work, but it's important not to overlook Vima Lupwa.
"Sure, it's on the other side of the planet, but it's important to think of places like this as part of our community," says Douglas.
Here in Bend, Vima Lupwa has a presence at many community events like Munch and Music, where they sell Zambian jewelry and artwork while also distributing information about the home and the project at large. They've also recently partnered with Rise Up International, selling Rise Up T-shirts in another fundraising effort. But again, the bulk of the funding comes through direct donations from Central Oregon.
"The people who do donate to us are donating because they know that it's very hands-on, financially. It's not going to a giant organization, they know exactly where it's going," says Bellavia.
There's one quintessentially Bend aspect of Vima Lupwa, and that's the bike repair business they've helped start over in Zambia, which will soon benefit from the five boxes of bike parts gathered by way of an ongoing drive in Central Oregon. The parts would have probably ended up in the scrap heap in Bend - where we have no shortage of bikes, or bike parts - but they're put to good use in Zambia, Bellavia says.
With the economic downturn, Bellavia says there's not as much talk about expanding the project, at least in terms of building another home, but they are soldiering on, finding funding where they can and keeping up to speed with the home. In keeping with the Vima Lupwa mission, Pratt and Bellavia hope that if they've done their job right, they should be able to eventually step back and let the Zambian community run the home.
Pratt will soon return to Africa, but not necessarily to oversee the home, but rather to find work with medical relief organizations, continuing her interest in pursuing a career in medicine. She wants to help as much as she can, but also wants to make sure the home, and its children, are built to last.
"We don't try to go in and just give. We always make sure we're not doing handouts, we always work to empower them," says Pratt, "It's not Americans going over there and saving these children, it's the Zambians who are raising them and they're doing it with their cultural values."
To learn more about Vima Lupwa Homes or to make a donation visit lupwahomes.org or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.