National Tour for Founders of Ethiopian Anti-poverty Organization Comes to Oshkosh Friday

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When my wife and I first traveled to Ethiopia nearly a decade ago to meet our daughter and finalize our adoption of her, we met a couple named Jerry and Christy Shannon, who were there along with  their oldest child Joshua for the same purpose. Their new daughter was exactly one year younger than ours and we connected with the Shannons immediately. They were an easy going, engaging family who were easy to talk to and at ease with being in this amazing foreign land, with all of its cultural and socioeconomic differences, and seeming very “normal”, particularly when some in the adoption world can be a bit over the top. Plus, on the plane ride home, Joshua helped get our daughter to sit on my lap for the first time, so he’ll always have a special place in the lore of our family.

After about a year back home in Pennsylvania, where Jerry was a pastor and they had a comfortable life with their four kids, they decided they were being called back to Ethiopia. We were not too surprised when we heard the news, because the Shannons struck us as the type of people who would do that–not very “normal” at all by American standards, as it turns out–something of which I was a bit envious, I have to say. They proceeded to sell their house and many of their earthly possessions and move to Addis Ababa, the capital city, which sits at 7,726 feet above sea level and has and a population of over 3 million people. The idea was that they would help grow Vineyard churches there.

After getting settled in, with Christy homeschooling the kids and Jerry working on the presumed mission for some time, the plan changed. Immersed in the fascinating culture of this place with its thousands of years of history as a civilization, they were surrounded by generous, lively people, but also by abject poverty and the darkness that accompanies it.

They were being pulled in a different direction. After their daughter Caia, who was 6 at the time, said, “Why are there so many moms and their kids begging (on the side of the road)? Shouldn’t we do something about that?”, their mission emerged.

In 2011, they launched Embracing Hope Ethiopia, which works to bring education, empowerment, nutrition, and spiritual light to the poorest of the poor women and young children in Addis Ababa. Jerry and Christy, along with their Ethiopian friend, Alayu Tadesse, started the organization by serving 20 children and their impoverished mothers in the living room of their house, which is near to the Kore’ slum and massive city garbage dump (site of the tragic landslide that killed at least 115 people, including some associated with Embracing Hope, back in March). I was honored to join the effort as an original board member, a role I continue to play.

Since its very grassroots origins, Embracing Hope has grown to now partner with over 260 poor families that typically make less than $1 a day through begging and prostitution, and has daycare and multiple levels of schooling in several different buildings in the neighborhood. The organization’s focus is to prevent children from becoming orphans and keeping families together through holistic methods, which include day care (something nearly unheard of in the country when they began the program), elementary education, a feeding center, women’s empowerment, social work, health care, basic needs provision, community development and spiritual ministry.

To boil it down a bit, Embracing Hope feeds, educates, and takes care of kids during the day so mothers can seek decent employment, and provides other services that help empower them and enhance their ability to succeed.

              

Importantly, Embracing Hope was set up from the start to be run by Ethiopians, to benefit local people and create a sustainable organization that can make a long-term difference. It now has 58 Ethiopian employees and an Ethiopian management team. According to Jerry Shannon, who has also served as the lead pastor for a large international church in Addis Ababa for the last several years, Embracing Hope largely focuses “on the individual needs of families and to partner with them in breaking the cycle of poverty and despair through targeted interventions and the good news of Jesus.”

While they deal with tragedy and heartbreak amongst the lives of extremely poor people on a near daily basis, they also have many success stories about children and their moms whose lives have been transformed through the education, empowerment, physical and spiritual nourishment provided by the program.

With the Ethiopian operation on a solid foundation, the Shannons find themselves being beckoned to another fascinating place with many people in need. In 2018, Embracing Hope will take steps to expand programs into Turkey to also work among poor moms and children, especially those from refugee families in the Istanbul metropolis.

Co-founders Jerry and Christy Shannon, along with their 6 children, are currently on a home assignment, which they take every few years to reconnect with their families and supporters. They are using some of that time to hit the road on a  national tour to tell the Embracing Hope story and will be in Oshkosh at Zion Lutheran (400 N. Sawyer St.) this Friday, June 30 to present on their work in Ethiopia as well as the growth of Embracing Hope into Turkey.

There will be an African-themed potluck starting at 5:30pm at Zion. People are encouraged to come and eat whether they bring food or not. Further, bringing African food is not a requirement, but will be welcomed. Others who want to contribute can bring salad, dessert, or something else they would normally bring to a potluck. The presentation by the Shannons will follow the meal, from around 6-7pm. Interested people are encouraged to RSVP.

The Shannons will also have a community booth at the Oshkosh Farmers’ Market on Saturday, July 1, near New Moon on Main St., where they will share information and sell goods that were handmade by mothers involved with the program in Ethiopia.

Learn more about Embracing Hope here.

Photos courtesy of Embracing Hope Ethiopia
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Paul Van Auken

Paul Van Auken has been a member of the sociology and environmental studies faculty at University of Wisconsin Oshkosh since 2007, after completing a Ph.D. in sociology from UW-Madison. A native of Iowa but resident of Wisconsin since 1999, Paul conducts research on issues related to neighborhood, community, land use planning and access to public space, sustainability, and teaching and learning. He also practices public sociology, regularly writing a column called “Shortening the Distance” for Oshkosh Independent. He lives with his wife and two daughters on the historic, walkable, and interesting east side of Oshkosh, near the shores of Lake Winnebago.

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