Saturday, July 11, 2009

Pittsburgh-Area College Student Gets Involved in Program Helping African Orphans

By Samantha Kalnas

As a child growing up in Cranberry Township, just north of Pittsburgh, I never really thought about the international world, and besides Disney’s The Lion King, Africa was barely even on my radar.

Samantha KalnasWhen I graduated from Seneca Valley in 2006 and decided to pursue a degree in journalism, I knew my knowledge of world affairs would widen, but my mind was focused elsewhere. To me, tiny villages in Africa were in no way newsworthy.

So, you can imagine my surprise when an Introduction to Cultural Anthropology class my sophomore year at Ohio University turned out to be the most influential.

From the minute I walked into the class, I knew it would be different. My professor, Andria Sherrow, practically blended in with the students, and her laid-back teaching style immediately caught my attention. She focused on her personal experiences, showing us pictures of her family and travels, and when she began to talk about her life’s work in Uganda, I was hooked.

While performing her graduate work in Kabale National Park in Uganda, Andria saw first hand the gravity of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. During her daily walk to the primary school where she worked, Andria encountered a number of children, most dressed in blue school uniforms, but one particular group of boys caught her attention.

Unlike the other children, these boys were not dressed in school uniforms, but instead in ripped and tattered shorts and bare feet. They approached Andria and tried to speak to her in broken English, writing their names on notebooks and trying to make a connection, but they would never accompany the group to school.

One morning, Andria was running late, and was far behind the gaggle of children that usually accompanied her. As she hurried along the dirt path, she saw one of the boys walking down the hill from a mud hut to meet her. He was extremely dirty and his old shorts were especially torn and frayed.

"Help me, I have no parents," the boy said in his broken English, and as a mother looking into the eyes of an orphan, Andria knew she had to find a way to help. She took the boy by the hand and brought him to school where she began to ask questions.

She learned that his name was Muhebwa Richard and that his parents had died three years prior, when Richard was nine years old, as a result of HIV/AIDS. She also learned that Richard was not the only child in need of help. By 2010, 25 million children will be orphaned; virtually an entire generation of parents will be wiped out by the disease.

After a great deal of research, Andria decided the best way to help these children was to provide them with an education. She teamed up with a women’s cooperative that made handmade jewelry and crafts and bought the goods to be sold in the United States.

The goods are purchased at fair trade prices, meaning the crafts are sold for no less than the minimum price of production, a way to promote social justice and sustainability in developing countries. All of the proceeds from the sale of the African crafts go towards providing orphans and vulnerable children with the materials needed to attend school. She called her non-profit organization The Empower Campaign.

In 2006, Andria moved the Empower Campaign to Ohio University and quickly found a dedicated group of students interested in helping her cause. The student organization plans and holds fundraising events and jewelry sales in the area and in members’ hometowns. In 2008, Empower expanded to three more campuses in Ohio and students raised over $50,000 during the 2008-09 school year.

As an officer in the student group, I was given the opportunity to bring Empower to Pittsburgh over my breaks from school, and had fun hosting at home jewelry parties in Cranberry Township. During my six-week holiday break, I was fortunate enough to raise over $1,500 for the Empower Campaign, and look forward to doing even more in the future.

For more information on The Empower Campaign, visit To plan an at-home jewelry sale or benefit event, contact Samantha Kalnas at

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