February 2016 - Uryadi’s Village Visit

First-hand experience with Ethiopian orphans is an inspiring eye-opener.

by Leslie Steele

As a board member for Uryadi’s Village, hunter/jumper trainer Leslie Steele welcomed the opportunity to experience the non-profit’s work by visiting Ethiopia this past December.

Established by show jumper Jennifer Fills Crooks, Uryadi’s Village has the mission of supporting “vulnerable children and their extended families around the globe by developing social, economic and environmentally renewable systems with orphans, vulnerable women and children where the need is greatest.”

Home to five million orphans, Ethiopia is the organization’s first area of focus and the location of its first sustainable orphanage.

Author Leslie Steele with a baby at the Uryadi’s Village orphanage in Soddo, Ethiopia.

My motivation for joining Uryadi’s Village is that, first and foremost, it’s important to give back. When I saw Jennifer Crooks’ material from Uryadi’s Village, and all of the beautiful babies that were discarded and/or homeless, I felt inspired to help the organization get sponsors for the children that we had at the time.

Being in a horse community where everyone is so fortunate, and considering how inexpensive it is to feed a child in Ethiopia, I felt like the horse show people know how good we have it and are always interested in giving back: paying it forward, so to speak.

To me, any cause to help people who are impoverished in third world countries is something that, to those in a privileged country, is a call to help in any way we can. It made me, as a person, feel like I was doing something good for the world.

We spent the first few days in the capital of Ethiopia, Addis Ababa: going to open air markets, walking around, seeing the human fossil “Lucy” (over 3 million years old!) and just discovering what was going on in that city—quite the large city at that.

What struck me the most was how many little children, generally 5- to 6-year-olds, were out on the street begging for money, or trying to sell you anything that they could muster, for money.  It was sad because I felt like the parents were making their living vicariously through them.

We then took a six-hour long trek to Wolayta Soddo, the village where Uryadi’s orphanage is located. Along the way we saw little kids who were herding their livestock to areas they could graze them in, or women and their burros coming to and from the market with supplies or water from the local water source.

To see people who still lived in mud huts with no sanitation, no running water, no electricity, was mindboggling—that in this day and age, so many people would still have so few options but to live like that.

Show jumper and Uryadi’s Village founder Lauren Fills Crooks enjoys time with some of the program’s kids. Photo: Cathrin Cammet

Once we arrived in Soddo, we had the opportunity to see the babies and play with them. It was hard to believe that people would forfeit these beautiful little children: just dump them somewhere, and leave them to their fate as orphans, when they were otherwise such healthy little children. It’s difficult to comprehend the hardships that the birth mothers face that would convince them to forfeit these beautiful children.

Also, the children who came in that were so malnourished: essentially starving to death with their families. In addition to the young children, the orphanage is home to older children with special needs. There were approximately seven, with ailments ranging from clubbed feet, hearing impairments and epilepsy. There were even two darling albino children whose mother attempted to kill them because she thought that their skin was a sign of demonic possession!

Then we went to property that the mayor had bestowed upon us, Uryadi’s Village, and had a ground-breaking ceremony with the mayor, plus local contributors Daniel Abebe, Henok and others. Seeing this beautiful piece of property where these children would be able to call home was very exciting! It’s the site for Wolayta Village, an integrated, sustainable system which will provide for nearly all of its own food, water, energy, housing, and economic needs while nourishing the community and ecological systems within and around it.

The property is the focal point for the organization this year as a thriving example that can not only save children’s lives and empower the local people in Soddo, but whose success and inspiration can be replicated elsewhere in Ethiopia, Africa and around the world.

Photo: Cathrin Cammet

Photo: Cathrin Cammet

An Ambitious Endeavor

We heard a man named Warren Brush, who orchestrates sustainable agriculture, explain that Uryadi’s Village will eventually not need external financing because it is designed so residents can grow their own food and sustain their livestock—rendering them a self-sustaining operation.

For me to be involved in something like Uryadi’s Village, I really wanted to know what it was and what I was talking about when I asked people to sponsor children or contribute to “another brick in the wall” of the buildings. Thus, it was important to me to be able to see first-hand what we were accomplishing and how it tangibly relates to improvement in these kids’ lives.

I have to say that being in Soddo and traveling in Ethiopia and seeing the amount of orphans, or people who didn’t have modern conveniences, shoes, transportation or formal educations—was an unbelievable and eye-opening situation for me.

We had one boy come in whose late mother had died prior to our arrival. He was so malnourished that he had no function in his limbs. You could see in his eyes that he was a beautiful human with a fierce desire to live, but his body was too weak to manifest that will due to lack of food.   It’s tough for an observer to imagine it, or understand how sad it is for these children, unless you’ve witnessed it firsthand.

After being there, it really opened my eyes to what third world countries are like and how little their government does for them. And yet, it serves as a triumph of human perseverance to know that they’re still a happy people, in spite of all the circumstances; attributed in no small part to the strength of the family unit.

In closing, bless the horse show community for how supportive they are of initiatives like this. In addition to monetary support, Uryadi’s Village welcomes donations of any kind: clothing, shoes, etc. To learn more about this organization, which includes several equestrians on its team, visit www.uryadisvillage.org or reach out to me!

Author Leslie Steele runs Acres West hunter/jumper training program in Calabasas. For more information, visit www.acreswest.com.