Featured Alumni Profiles

Bringing Progess to Ethiopia

When Fedeke Gemechu ’66 returned to the Ethiopian village of his childhood he was struck by how it had stayed the same: the same poverty, the lack of education nd medical care, the devastation rom civil unrest. It was as if no progress had been made in more than 40 years.

Communist rule had closed Ethiopia’s borders until the early 1990s, when Fedeke was finally allowed to visit his country. His travels sparked a dream to start a primary school in the rural village he had often visited as a child.

After retiring from his medical practice in Loma Linda, Calif., Fedeke formed a nonprofit organization, the International Medical Aid Association. Through IMAA, he returned to Ethiopia and founded the Learning Village. After hiring teachers in Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, who were anxious for employment, the school was set to open for 50 students in 1998. The first day, however, some 300 students lined up to attend classes. “We had no choice but to quickly add more classrooms,” he says.

Most students are 15 or older and need practical, income-earning skills, along with skills in reading and writing. A component of the Learning Village is the micro-industry training. As students learn and work, income they generate from gardening, woodworking, beekeeping, the dairy, or the bakery helps to support the school.

Currently, the Learning Village offers grades one through six plus vocational training to nearly 500 students. The goal is to add grades each year up to grade 10 and to expand the micro-industries. A first aid clinic serves the students and community. Fedeke plans to build a girls’ dormitory to help them stay in school and he also hopes to build a church.

When he isn’t working on the Learning Village, Fedeke is negotiating
with the Ethiopian government to reestablish the Adventist hospital in Addis Ababa. Before communism in Ethiopia, the hospital was renowned for its medical care. Now the government is interested in joining with Fedeke and his Adventist colleagues in establishing a hospital and medical training facility.

With the practical education the school offers and an open invitation
to Sabbath worship, the Learning Village is becoming an integral part of the community. Fedeke’s dream is to “help the people improve their lives—and then they have the freedom to choose.”


Changing the World

In her quieter moments, Rita (Smith) Barrett ’81 is bemused. How did she, a social work and Spanish graduate intent on changing the world, find herself inspiring laughter instead?

The story begins 21 years ago when Rita and husband Mike ’83 had their first child. Even when baby Josiah’s parents were told the baby was born with microcephaly (severe brain damage) Rita believed she could still pursue
her social work career. By the time Josiah was 18 months old Rita accepted the reality. Josiah, whose condition left him at the developmental stage of a six-month-old, required her constant care. A year later a second son, Nate, was born.

Josiah’s medical needs required frequent hospital stays as the years went by. In spite of the demands of caring for Josiah and being a stay-at-home mom, Rita kept up with her language skills as a volunteer Spanish teacher
at Scappoose Adventist School.

Five years ago, in her and her husband’s quest to find a family activity
that 14-year-old Nate would enjoy, Rita had an epiphany. “We had exhausted all our ideas and were frustrated. Mike suggested that we should pray about it, so I left it at that,” she says. “A couple nights later, I found I couldn’t sleep and the word ‘clowning’ suddenly popped into my head. It wasn’t an audible voice and I hadn’t been thinking about my son, but I knew immediately that God had just given me the word for Nate’s hobby.” To her own surprise, her son thought it sounded like fun.

Nate wasn’t the only one having fun: Rita and Mike also completed the clown course offered by the local “alley” (clown club). Today, Rita visits hospital patients twice a month as Mensa the Clown. “I have a lot of fun with my bilingual clown name. English speakers often say ‘Wow—a smart clown.’ Spanish speakers just laugh. Mensa International may be a club for the brilliant, but ‘mensa’ is Spanish for stupid.”

Sometimes Rita will play ukulele for the children, a skill she might not have if it hadn’t been for college roommate Kathy Skeels ’81. “Her teaching me to play the guitar means so much to me now, not only because I can play for the kids in the hospital, but because guitar music is nearly the only comforting mechanism
we have for Josiah’s chronic pain,” she says.

Rita says being a clown is what she was born to do. “For just a few moments, if I can take a child to another place, where he doesn’t have to think about pain, shots, or being away from home, that’s the only world I need to change,” she says.

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Last update on November 7, 2007