By Beth Ashley, Marin Independent Journal
Emebet Bellingham visited her native Ethiopia in 2003 and was stunned at the changes she saw after 17 years. The streets were crowded, the air polluted, and 4.6 million of Ethiopia’s children were orphans. “It just shocked me,” she says.
She returned to her San Anselmo home determined to do something to help her people. Her mother, Yemegnushal Haile – “an amazing woman and a true humanitarian,” Bellingham says – served on the board of an organization helping children whose parents had died of malaria, AIDS, poor sanitation and inadequate care. She planned to start a nonprofit of her own that would be the American partner of the agency where her mom worked in Ethiopia.
Her intentions were derailed when she became pregnant with her second child. She continued to sponsor orphans in Ethiopia on an individual basis – “I have sponsored children since I was 19” – but her plans for a nonprofit were put on the shelf.
Then, last year, her mother died in an auto accident in Addis Ababa, and Bellingham, 39, resolved to pick up the work her mother had started.
She joined with another Ethiopian, Euyeal Joseph Zeleke of San Jose, to found a new nonprofit called The World Family – Ethiopian Orphans and Medical Care.
Zeleke was already working in Ethiopia, rounding up serviceable but outdated medical equipment in American hospitals and sending it to clinics in his native country. He has sent $5 million worth of equipment since 2005, some of it to a clinic that Bellingham’s mother helped build.
Bellingham and Zeleke met in her mother’s hospital room in Ethiopia and decided to team up.
“I am so grateful,” Zeleke says. “She’s a really good person, very dedicated.”
In March, Bellingham went back to Ethiopia, looking for a place on which to focus her efforts.
She fell in love with a rural village called Gara Dima, whose people lived in primitive huts, drinking impure water from a nearby river. “The people were so warm and welcoming,” she says. “This was an underserved community in clear need of help.”
She decided that Gara Dima and a second village nearby could best be served by construction of a community center that would serve everyone, including orphaned children, and would include a library, kitchen, clinic, a large meeting room, classrooms and a guest apartment for visiting experts.
Field Paoli, a design firm in San Francisco, drew plans for a center, to be constructed from bags filled with dirt enclosed in plaster. The firm didn’t charge for its work, and deliberately chose an affordable form of construction. “(Field Paoli) has been supportive in every aspect,” says Bellingham.
Projected cost for the center, which she hopes to start building in January: $95,000. “We expect to get additional donations to help furnish the clinic and library.”
She has already raised $88,000, much of it from a charitable event held at Fort Mason in San Francisco last month.
Meanwhile, the nongovernmental organization she and Zeleke co-direct continues to send medical equipment to Ethiopia, working with the Ministry of Health and the Clinton Foundation, which is building 100 new health centers every year.
The nonprofit sends two 40-foot containers a month to Ethiopia, enough to equip four centers.
Working with the Ministry of Education, World Family has also implemented the opening of two dental schools, the country’s first.
To meet Bellingham is to marvel that she has accomplished so much in a short space of time.
“I am a very driven person,” she says.
Dave McConnell, president of the Marin Environmental Forum, says he is “just amazed that a person (like Bellingham) is taking the bit in her teeth and running with it.” McConnell has consulted with her on environmental aspects of the proposed center.
A reed-slim woman with a fashion model face and a head of springy black curls, Bellingham came to the Bay Area from Ethiopia in 1984 when her father, then an executive with Ethiopian Airlines, decided to send his two daughters here to attend school. (A son was already here.) Bellingham finished high school in Richmond, then enrolled at the Fashion Institute of Design in San Francisco. She then attended the Academy of Art for a year and a half before going to work at Esprit, buying fabric and designing clothes.
Later she began her own highly successful business, designing high-end women’s clothing and selling it to boutiques.
“It just got too hectic,” she says. She had married Michael Bellingham, a painting and decorating contractor, in 1994, and “we decided not to expand my business, and to raise a family instead.”
She is the mother of a girl, 8, and a boy, 4.
The rest of her family is spread out: her sister lives in Hercules, her brother in Singapore, her father is still in Addis Ababa.
She continues to work in the fashion industry, doing freelance work as a designer and wardrobe consultant.But much of her energy goes to the World Family, and she expects that to continue.Many outsider organizations come to Africa, provide relief monies, and disappear, she says. “The villages have nothing lasting to show for the money that’s been spent.
“I hope to reverse that situation.”
HOW TO HELP
– Financial contributions to The World Family can be made online at www.theworldfamily.org or by mail. Checks should be made to The World Family Ethiopian Orphan and Medical Care and sent to either Medical Care Donations, 391 Jacklin Road, Milpitas 95035 or Orphan Care Donations, 310 Laurel Ave., San Anselmo 94960.
– The agency also needs donated warehouse space to store reclaimed medical equipment. Call E. Joseph Zeleke at 408-594-1360 or send e-mail to [email protected]
– Volunteers are also needed. Call Emebet Bellingham at 302-3037 or send e-mail to [email protected]
Contact Beth Ashley via e-mail at [email protected]