Hands Across the World: One Church’s Effort to Save Lives and Families

Shewaye, her children, and church members, including Ellen Tuthill, right.

by RENEE TARGOS, Food for the Hungry


Within days of meeting their adopted son in Russia, Julie and Matt Kouri returned home and began thinking about what they could do for those children who would not be adopted.

“How could we go around the world and adopt our son and forget all the faces of the ones left behind?” said Julie Kouri. “We could not.”

Along with members of their Bible study group at their Austin, Tex., church, a group made up of families with adopted children – many of them children adopted from overseas — the Kouris began looking for a way to help.

They contacted Food for the Hungry (FH), a faith-based, non-profit relief and development organization working in vulnerable communities around the world.

Soon the Bible study group from Grace Covenant Church was paired with the town of Zeway, in Ethiopia, through Food for the Hungry’s Community-to-Community program.  Before long, church members learned the stark reality: there are hundreds of thousands of orphans in Ethiopia alone, according to Wendy McMahan, mobilization manager at Food for the Hungry.

Even worse, McMahan said, “There are many more thousands of HIV-positive parents who are at immediate risk of dying and leaving their children as orphans.”

Seeing the Hopelessness in Ethiopia First Hand

In 2010, the Kouris and their group, who had been writing letters to Zeway residents, and raising funds to help orphans, went to Ethiopia.

They visited the home of Shewaye, a widow in Zeway who had lost her husband to AIDS and who was near death from the disease herself.

“I was struck at how quiet the roughly 250-square-foot, two-room mud hut remained, especially given how many young children were inside,” said Matt Kouri. Shewaye lay on her thin mat on the floor with her five children beside and on top of her.

“There was a palpable feeling of anguish in the air,” he said.   “I’m not certain what was more disturbing to me, her intense suffering and likely imminent death, or the fact that soon there would be half-dozen new orphans in the world.”

In Ethiopia, anti-retroviral (ARV) medications are available to keep HIV-positive patients alive. But Shewaye had lost hope and did not believe she could be saved.

Taking Action

The trip inspired Kouri and others from the church to form the Hope in Ethiopia partnership to help orphans living at home without parents, and families with dying parents whose children are struggling to survive.

“Shewaye’s story has changed the way I understand and talk to others about HIV/AIDS,” said Ellen Tuthill, a church member. “This is a disease that is destroying families and stealing the future from millions of children.”

Tuthill returned to theUSand started raising funds. “My son raised $92 on his birthday by asking for donations for the Ethiopian children instead of presents,” she recalled. ”I used my birthday to throw an Ethiopian party, with traditional food and tons of slides of all the people we met. At the party, my talented friend Dawn sold her handmade jewelry to benefit the partnership.”

Church members made monthly pledges to the support the partnership. A prayer book was created with photos of the families in the program, including Shewaye and her children. The Kouris built a website. Group members spoke at national Christian conferences and to local groups in the Austin area. To date, the partnership has raised $350,000.

Hope Restored


A year after their first visit to Zeway, the church members returned to find Shewaye transformed.

Just one year earlier, she was bedridden, emaciated and depressed. She expected to die shortly.

On their second visit, earlier this year, Shewaye met her visitors at the door.

“There was a very tall, beautiful, woman with strong cheekbones standing before us, dressed in colorful, clean clothing and smiling,” said Tuthill.

Shewaye had received counseling for her grief, she had begun taking her anti-retroviral drugs. Her children had received clothing and school supplies so that they could return to school.

Shewaye asked her visitors, “You remember how sick I was? Look at me now! I am happy and healthy. My children are healthy and going to school.”

In a word, said Tuthill, she had hope.

Her story inspired others to action.

Local Ethiopian churches have enthusiastically joined the partnership. “Some of our local pastors have already signed up to adopt orphaned children themselves,” said Feye Tola, Child Development Program Director of Food for the Hungry, Ethiopia.

For churches at home wanting to help, Amanda Cox, coordinator of the non-profit Faith to Action Initiative, encourages churches to support community-based approaches like the Hope in Ethiopia partnership. “The best and most important way for churches to respond to the needs of orphans and vulnerable children is to strengthen families to provide for their care,” she said.

Orphan Sunday

This Sunday, churches nationwide will observe Orphan Sunday, hoping to shine a light on the problem.  Grace Covenant will be participating – but for them, the event will also be about the success of their efforts in Ethiopia.

“Hope itself is a worthy ‘deliverable,’” said Grace Covenant’s Tuthill.  “Hope is the one thing that will turn someone’s life around, even if that person is dying.”

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