No. 22 – Changing Our Perspective at Sele Enat

The Amharic words Sele Enat mean “in place of mother,” an appropriate name for an organization working to mother orphaned and vulnerable children. The girls and I have spent a few days at Sele Enat orphanage and will be back again before we leave Addis. In terms of our contribution to the organization, the little help we’ve been able to offer feels like a drop in the bucket. However, the experience has had a tremendous impact on us. We’ve learned so much from these children – lessons we’ll take with us forever.

Thoughts from Emily
Before we went I thought there would be a lot more children than there were. I didn’t think they would have so many rooms and places to play. I guess I thought it would be like an orphanage in a movie. The days we spent there helping and playing with them, it didn’t feel like we were around kids who didn’t have families. They seemed so happy, that it didn’t seem like they’d had tragedy in their lives. They seemed like normal kids. If I hadn’t known I was at an orphanage, I wouldn’t have been able to tell their families were different from mine. They are choosing happiness in spite of everything.

Whenever I get mad about something, I hope I will stop and think about these kids who lost so much and yet they’re smiling. They don’t have the things we have, they don’t have their parents and yet they’re laughing and playing and treating us with kindness. It proves to me that we can’t find happiness, we can only choose to be happy. The way we live our lives can make that choice easier. It means loving the people around you, no matter who it is. The kids at Sele Enat are making the people around them their family and that brings them their happiness.
On the swings

Thoughts from Liv
I helped with all of the little kids a lot while we were there. I like babies, so I really liked getting to feed them their baby food and playing with them. All of the little ones have families to adopt them, so they will be leaving the orphanage soon.

I also played with the older kids a lot. Because they were so much older when they came to the orphanage, the staff told us they probably won’t be adopted. They said that they want the kids to feel like everyone that’s in the orphanage is a family. I get it and that’s good and all, but I don’t think those kids who will live there their whole lives will really get a chance to understand what it’s like to be in a real family. I think that’s sad.

Even though they seemed really happy when they were around us, I don’t think that’s how they are all the time. I think maybe they get sad too because they remember their parents and they remember what their life used to be like. Here though, maybe their life in the orphanage is a little better. They have to miss their families, but we see so many people that are really poor or begging in the street. At that orphanage the kids have food and clothing and get to go to school. Maybe that’s why they’re still so happy. Even though they don’t have a family like mine, they have a better life than they had before.

Ali Keeps It Simple
Ali’s thoughts on the experience were pretty straightforward. The age difference was obvious when the first thing she talked about was the dog she got to pet at the orphanage. She thought the days were fun and spent most of her time there playing with other kids. Those children weren’t different to her. When I reminded her that these children didn’t have families she shrugged her shoulders and said, “But they were happy there.” Giving these kids a happy life is what the staff at Sele Enat work to do every day, and according to Ali they’re doing a very good job.

Zelalem, an assistant director at Sele Enat, spent a lot of time with us talking about the Ethiopian adoption process and the various services his organization provides. In addition to the home Sele Enat provides to chidlren, it also supports foster homes, a community group home for teenagers, and a child sponsorship program in which school tuition and food supports are provided to struggling mothers trying to keep custody of their children.

While the infants and toddlers have almost a 100% adoption rate, the older children will likely spend the rest of their childhood under Sele Enat’s care. “It’s critical that we give them the opportunity to become part of their community,” Zelalem told us as we stood in front of a large board with photos of the program’s successful graduates. “If they stay in the facility they are institutionalized. If they get out into our community, they establish roots that will help them into their adult lives.” This is the purpose of the group home the children live in as teenagers. They go to the local secondary school, attend church, and sometimes find jobs, just as they would if they were living with a typical family. The model has been successful for these young people. Currently 17 of Sele Enat’s children are enrolled at local universities and preparing for independent life.

Tracey’s Shift in Perspective
For me, our brief time at the orphanage helped crystallize the impact of our family’s experience in Africa. While the kids helped with the infants and played with the older children, I worked with the staff to reorganize a classroom, clear out shelves and create some usable space in a closet. I helped with lunch for the children with disabilities, most of whom live with severe cerebral palsy. I was so focused on being productive while I was there, the real impact of the experience didn’t hit me until later.

As I put our girls to bed the night after our first visit I found myself in tears. I wondered what bedtime was like for those boys and girls we met at the orphanage. While the staff there certainly seemed extremely dedicated and caring, how much individual attention can they give to 63 children? No one was singing to those kids, snuggling up with them, or telling them how much they’re loved. The unfairness of life for those smiling, beautiful children in Sele Enat washed over me as I lay there hugging my sleeping five-year-old.

This feeling of enormous injustice hits you quickly in Ethiopia. Before this trip I subconsciously pushed the sad stories of the world out of my mind. Things like trips to Target, work meetings and soccer practices took priority in my privileged American life. The ills of the world were diluted down to sad images posted on Facebook or 30-second segments on the evening news. Issues of poverty and world violence seemed so big and unsolvable I couldn’t imagine how my contributions could make a significant impact, so I would put it out of my mind and go on with my life.

Here in Ethiopia the injustice stares a person in the face. One child at Sele Enat, a thirteen-year-old named Aba, witnessed his parents and sisters being murdered in a conflict near the Somali border. Other children had to watch both parents die from AIDS. And a person doesn’t have to go to Africa to find this kind of unfairness. Children throughout our modernized, first-world country suffer as well. They’re hungry, they’ve lost their parents, they get pressured into joining gangs and die young in drive-by shootings. While before I might have been able to put all of this out of my mind, my eyes have been opened since coming here. Opened wide.

At first seeing all this makes you want to scream. How has our human race, with minds capable of creating so many beautiful and amazing things, allowed so much disparity and pain in this world?! Why do we let this occur? What’s wrong with us as a society?

But then…something magical starts to happen. In the midst of all this sadness, something inside of me has started to wake up. I’ve had a chance to see the positive side of those heartbreaking stories I used to find so overwhelming and depressing. What would have been just another tragic story of war and loss and a little orphaned boy now has a face and a name. His name is Aba and he’s smiling and talking to me about science projects. He has a roof over this head and food to eat and he’s getting an education, all thanks to the staff at Sele Enat.

These personal experiences have made me realize that all is not hopeless. I don’t have to ignore the bad things happening in the world because they make me feel sad and depressed. Instead, I feel driven to get involved because I now know when I do, I’ll share in the joy of those small victories of humanity happening every single day. I’ll witness the inspirational stories firsthand and see evidence of how those drops in the bucket really do make a difference.

This experience in Africa is giving me an immense feeling of gratitude and hope, and I feel more empowered and obligated to leave the world better than I found it. The children of Sele Enat and the people of Ethiopia, despite all the sadness and hardship they might have endured themselves, are making the lives of this American family so much better. It’s the sweet irony of service work that we come to help others and they wind up helping us.

How you can help
We can certainly vouch for the quality and validity of this amazing organization in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. If you would like to help them in their mission to change the lives of children, we’ve provided their contact information below. Their biggest needs are diapers, particularly extra large sizes needed for older children with disabilities, and baby formula. A large donation of these items or funds to help purchase them would be hugely appreciate by this dedicated staff. An American organization called, which is run by a woman who was adopted from Sele Enat, coordinates monetary donations to the orphanage. Just specify on the donation page that you want your contribution to go to the Sele Enat Orphanage Project.

Sele Enat Direct Contact Information
Address: P.O. Box 25136, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
Contact: Ato Yared Abdu, General Manager



About the Author

Mom, wife, friend and change agent traveling the world with my family to learn our place in it. After spending a career in organizational change management and community initiative implementation, I put my career on hold for our family's trip around the world. In April of 2014 we sold almost everything we own, put the rest in a storage container, and departed on this journey. While my husband continued his software development work to financially support our trip, I planned and documented our adventure, homeschooled our three daughters, and found volunteer work opportunities for us to do in the communities we visit. Now that we've returned to the U.S., I'm completing book about our family's adventure and our lessons learned.

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  1. I love reading your posts. Especially this one. Travel really opens your eyes to the dichotomies of the beautiful and sad of humanity. I helped at an orphanage in Haiti. That experience brought up overwhelming emotions that didn’t surface until I left later on that day. I can relate to your feelings. What a wonderful thing to do with your family. What a wonderful family. Good luck.

  2. Absolutely beautiful <3 I love everyone's perspectives! I can't wait to see what your girls do in life. Cheers to paradigm shifts and deep insight :)

  3. Thank you for sharing. We are in the process of adopting older boys from this orphanage and really appreciated your reminder of how important it is for these kid to have a family too.

    1. Kelly, congratulations!! That’s so exciting. I hope the boys are with you soon. I’m sure we met them during our time there. So glad to hear they will have their family soon. Best of luck to all of yoy!

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