When we founded Beautiful Together, our 501(c)(3) all-volunteer, non-profit organization focused on supporting children without families, we knew that one of the benefits of doing this type of work would be meeting others who were doing similar work. We knew we would want to partner with a few key organizations and have found that it has been a surprisingly natural process to determine who that would be. We are currently partnering with two organizations. One of the non-profts we are doing work with is Make Your Mark, which focuses on at-risk youth in a very real, hands-on way. Founders Carmen and Trent Post moved to Ethiopia from Charlotte, North Carolina four years ago because they believe that every child deserves the opportunity to impact the world, and sometimes they just need help to be able to do that.
While we were in Ethiopia, we went to their home for dinner and learned more about what Make Your Mark does – mainly, help get children off the streets by working hard to earn their trust and then giving them an opportunity to, over time, transform their lives. Not that I think this sounds remotely easy, but it’s even more difficult than one might think. I headed out with them one Tuesday morning at 4:30am to document, and be a part, of the work they do. And this is how it went.
We started out by finding the groups of children – most orphans, most boys – in the locations where they tended to sleep. When we found the first group, some were still sleeping, very much huddled together for safety and warmth, and some were up and already burning whatever they could find. The morning we spent with them, they were burning scraps of rubber, and the fire emitted an incredibly acrid smoke. I kept thinking about how bad it was for their little lungs – these children were mostly between 10 and 13 years old. But, then again, these same children are nearly all doing whatever they can to stay safe, warm and to dampen their constant hunger. In that respect, burning rubber was kind of the least of their health concerns.
Carmen and her daughter, acting as translator, ask the children how they are, how they are feeling, how the night was. They sing together for a bit. Or they just sit together, side by side. Basically, they make a point of showing they care for them, that they want to spend time with them.
And the dogs. There are so many street dogs in Ethiopia, in all kinds of conditions. But the dogs that stay with these boys are very much their pack. They really do stick together – sleeping together, sharing body warmth, watching out for each other, protecting each other. They build a truly special bond that is heartwarming to see.
If you can’t tell, these children are sleeping in the middle of a median. Of a VERY busy road. It’s not quite as busy at 4am and 5 am, but there are still cars and vans and police going by at all hours. They stay in this spot, though, because it’s more open, less hidden – and, thus, safer for them at night. But “safer” is a pretty relative term. I worry about my children falling out of the bed a few feet onto the floor. Here, rolling the wrong way is simply life-threatening.
These faces stay with you.
There’s no question why Make Your Mark does the work it does, why they feel compelled to do this often-exhausting work. Even as you know they are also constantly battling some rather discouraging odds.
We told the boys from the first area that we’d be back to take them out for breakfast. The thinking is that, in order to gain their trust, you take them out for meals. You sit at a table with them and you hear their stories. You return. Again and again. And eventually you invite them to come to a day center established for children on the street to have a safe place to be, connect, eat, learn, all of it. You give these children a chance to make the decision to change their own lives. But you don’t get that kind of opportunity with them by just driving up and handing them money. You feed them – but you’re actively part of everything else it means, in all cultures, to share a meal together.
We moved to another group.
It was dark-dark out in this part of Addis Ababa, about 5am now.
I photographed these images at 25,600 ISO, 1/30 second, f2.8. What you see below is Carmen and her daughter speaking to a woman, her son, and her infant, held very tightly in her arms. They are learning that this family, like so many others, is homeless on the streets but could have a chance for a different life. Specifically, this woman has relatives in the countryside and, if she could just get to them, she could better feed her family, and her infant would have an infinitely better chance at life. Carmen offered to return and put this family on a bus and pay bus fare for them.
At one point, while we were at this location, Carmen told me to turn away from a few men who were walking up to us. They said some things to us, and we all kept our backs turned and stayed silent. After a while, maybe a few minutes, they moved on – and there was a feeling of noticeable relief. Carmen says she doesn’t really worry that much about safety out on the streets, but there are definitely some interactions it makes sense to avoid.
I wrote earlier that these boys would do a whole lot to dampen their hunger. I have photographs of this boy sniffing glue, an extraordinarily cheap and massively toxic way to get high and to forget how cold, hungry and alone you are. They are not shared here. His face is partially covered for a reason.
Nearly every child we spoke to was doing something to help get by – if it wasn’t glue, it was herbal. Chat, or khat, is a small, evergreen plant that can be chewed on and acts as a stimulant. One of its main benefits, though, is a decrease in appetite. These are cheap (or even free) drugs and getting children to no longer rely on them when they’ve repeatedly made life more bearable is one of the major challenges that Make Your Mark faces. They know that the choice to leave drugs behind for a better life has to be the choice of the child. A choice difficult enough for most adults.
And, as you can see in this image below, no matter what they are living through, make no mistake: these are very much children. And they act like it.
They are affectionate, they dance, they cry, they giggle.
They are kids in every way except in one we naturally think of as part of childhood: they have no home, and they have no parents. They are completely on their own.
This boy caught a ride with us. Make Your Mark had been trying to help him transition off the streets for a while. He was very quiet, very kind, and he had a wonderful smile that we didn’t get to see a lot of over the 4-5 hours we spent with him. He had also experienced things most of couldn’t imagine at his age. At any age. It hurt to hear how much. After breakfast, we drove him to get some medical attention. I think of this boy – and that surprise dimple of his that emerges when his expression opens up.
When we went back to the first location, we collected the boys to go for breakfast. We would walk with them to a restaurant about a mile away that had agreed to open up early so these boys could be fed.
While standing there, though, something occurred.
Something really frightening.
This white van raced up the road just as one of the little puppies wandered into the street. I mentioned earlier the relationship these boys had with these dogs. They were close. They truly care for each other. The way you watch them snuggle these puppies, you could be anywhere in the world with any child and their puppy. For all the extremeness of their situation, sometimes some things are just the same everywhere.
So when this puppy wandered out into the street and this van just kept going, I heard a boy cry out and the van screech to a halt – and I saw the puppy disappear under the van. The boys ran up to the front of the van and, for a minute, it all looked pretty horrible.
Then, a little scamper – and this puppy emerges from the undercarriage of the van, near the back tires.
He was completely untouched.
I don’t even know exactly how.
I heard these whoops, and then they grabbed the pup, hugged him and celebrated.
Sometimes love is just the same everywhere.
We headed out to breakfast, walking just under a mile on pretty empty city streets, as the sky finally started to lighten a bit. And of course, the dogs walked with us, too.
These boys wore everything. Some of their jackets were women’s jackets, many of their clothes were far too big – but it was coverage. Some had shoes, several did not. Shoes, I learned, were quite the commodity. If you were a deep sleeper, and you had shoes, you didn’t wake with your shoes still on; they would be taken in the night.
We waited outside the restaurant for a while until they opened their doors. The boys all wanted their photograph taken while we waited. And once we got inside, the boys lined up to use the sink. This was their best chance at a shower, and they washed their faces, arms, chest, as much as they could as best they could.
Then we sat down and went around the table, the boys telling their stories. How they got to where they were now. Some had lost their parents. Some were told there was no more room for them at the house. Some had left the countryside for a better chance in the city. I kept asking how old each was. Although some knew they were ten, eleven, twelve, others didn’t know. “Eleven?”, with a shrug. As odd as that sounds, knowing your exact birthday is not as common in Ethiopia as it is in the west.
Grace was said as the meal started arriving, after the scuffles broke out.
Food arriving at the table for some and not yet for others created a sense of panic among some of the boys. They were each given their own separate plate for that exact reason. Sharing food off a main plate would simply be too difficult. Carmen made it very clear – No one touch anyone else’s food. You will all be given your own food. She knew to head things off at the very beginning.
There was still a bit of swiping, though. One of the boys burst into tears because a boy next to him had grabbed a piece of his meal and swallowed it fast. The boy who was crying was probably around twelve years old. The way his tears flowed reminded me of my son losing his stuffed bear when he was four years old. The quick sadness at the loss.
The boys separated. The one in tears wiped his face and continued eating, now with his arm around his plate.
After breakfast, you could feel the energy relax. There was more laughter. The boys had eaten well, and they would now head back to the streets.
But not before running back to say a sweet goodbye.
This ritual will continue for weeks, feeding the boys, building trust, developing relationships. And then they would be invited into the day center. They would slowly be given the opportunity to transition off the streets and move into a transitional home.
They would have the opportunity to transform their lives. But only if they committed to it on their own.
That opportunity, to transition them off the streets.
That takes a lot of driving, to and from the day center, to get the boys, to bring them back and forth. This is one of the major needs of Mark Your Mark: a dedicated van. This is one of the areas where we are partnering with them, to help them raise funds to be able to afford one. This actually helps in more than one way – not just to help these children, but to also offer a full-time job to a boy who transitioned off the streets years ago and who would greatly welcome the chance to have a career as a driver. We will be creating a fund for this soon on Beautiful Together.
My hat is off to Make Your Mark.