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With KaeMe, no orphan left behind

Jennifer Miller, co-founder of BeAGoodDoctor.org, and her team of initial surveyors pose with young Ghanaian interviewees. (Courtesy of Jennifer Miller)

Three Stanford entrepreneurs look to bring change to Ghana’s orphanage system

“You’re told that your child can have the opportunity to go to a private boarding school run by someone who appears wealthy,” said John Stevens. “It’s no charge until he’s 18 if you sign one piece of paper…it turns out that this paper is a consent for adoption. I think that is a literal kidnapping.”

Stevens and two other Stanford entrepreneurs have built the organization KaeMe–which means “remember me” in the Ghanaian dialect of Twi–to help Ghana’s government reverse practices they see as egregious in Ghanaian orphanages.

Now, KaeMe is in the midst of its largest recruiting effort ever, hoping to accelerate the completion of a database of Ghanaian orphans. They hope to send three groups totaling 40 volunteers to Ghana this summer.

Stevens, a Stanford-trained cardiothoracic surgeon, learned about the state of Ghana’s orphanage system when he and his wife Marci traveled to Ghana in 2002. With intentions of building an orphanage of their own, they were instead inspired by observations of many mismanaged orphanages and ultimately decided to work with the government to improve the existing system.

After working for years to improve orphanages in the Attawa District, Stevens shared his experiences with QuestBridge founder, Ashoka Fellow and Rhodes Scholar Michael McCullough M.D. ’89.

On partnering with McCullough, Stevens, himself the founder of multiple for-profit corporations, said, “I realized that Michael had a set of skills which I woefully lacked and that we could do far more together than either of us alone.”

To Steven’s network of government contacts, McCullough added the expertise of colleague Jennifer Miller and the organizational structure of the nonprofit BeAGoodDoctor.org. McCullough and Miller cofounded BeAGoodDoctor.org in order to centralize fundraising and management for their smaller nonprofits: S.C.O.P.E., the Courage Project and clinical internship organizations in Honduras, Nepal and Dharamsala.

Before the two committed to Steven’s idea, Miller led three students on a fact-finding mission. Officials explained to them that at the time, in 2008, the most immediate problem was miscalculated Western generosity.

“Churches, clubs, governments…even Canadian actresses send money to Ghana to fund their own orphanages, without understanding the responsibilities of monitoring them,” Miller said.

McCullough further described the phenomenon of detrimental generosity.

“If you are an entrepreneurial Ghanaian working for an orphanage funded by a remote donor–say, a church in Oklahoma–and want to keep this money coming in, you have dangerous incentives to label children orphans who are not actually orphans, and [you] will hesitate to find them homes.”

Miller’s team surveyed approximately 9 percent of the orphanage population and found that fewer than 50 percent of those children had actually been orphaned. The rest were given up by poverty-stricken families, often under hollow promises of schooling, food, clothing and medical treatment.

“The orphanage where I found my daughter Perpetua was clearly one of the better orphanages,” Stevens recalled. “Even then, she was hungry every day and was beaten on a regular basis.”

The formulation of KaeMe coincided with efforts by Ghana’s government to take control over reckless institutions, as well as with an international movement to improve the lives of orphaned and abandoned children. Ghana’s government passed the Care Reform Initiative in 2006, raising the country’s policy on care, education and resettlement of orphans to standards set by UNICEF and the International Hague Conventions.

“When we went in there and started asking questions to government officials, they were being asked the same questions by UNICEF,” Stevens said. “The organizational structure we provided had answers to these questions.”

With these foundations in place, McCullough and Miller began searching for undergrads who could carry out the groundwork in Ghana.

“My skill is in finding a group of highly talented, socially conscious and diverse students–people who I know are capable of accomplishing tasks which usually demand much more age and experience,” McCullough said.

One of McCullough’s goals is to expand the role students play in the organization and to mentor these students to success in both their immediate and greater life goals. In addition to a multitude of Fulbright and Truman Fellowship winners, four of KaeMe’s previous leaders have gone on to win Rhodes Scholarships.

“I want our student leaders to leave with the same momentum in their own lives as they bring into leading these projects,” McCullough said.

Last June KaeMe directed eight students–five from Stanford–in gathering medical and familial records and producing video interviews of Ghanaian orphans.

“Through the volunteers’ work, we are creating an electronic database of the orphans, along with a network of people who are becoming educated about the issues,” Stevens said.

The goal of the electronic database is to help Ghana’s Department of Social Welfare (DSW) make informed decisions about what should be done with each of the more than 4,000 children in orphanages, as well as to assist the DSW with implementation.

To minimize costs to the government, DSW workers accompany volunteers to each orphanage, sharing the transportation resources funded by KaeMe. Once there, student volunteers collect and record relevant information from school reports, hospital records and caregiver notes. DSW workers talk to the heads of orphanages, informing them of new regulations that must be met to avoid being shut down. In addition, DSW workers establish a permanent means of contact with these orphanages.

Workers also conduct a formal, informational video interview of each orphan. Student volunteers follow up with an informal second interview, meant to illuminate the personality of each child.

Volunteers must constantly weigh their own cultural standards against their desire to maintain respect for locals. On one occasion, after witnessing a pre-school-aged child in diapers rubbing himself along the ground, the group of volunteers deliberated extensively about whether or not to inform a caregiver.

Volunteer Faradia Pierre ’12 recalled another orphan’s opinion “that the child would just get his bottoms dirty so they might as well give them to the other children.”

“This may offend our sentiments,” Pierre added, “yet in a relatively poor country such as Ghana, pragmatism often reigns.”

In spite of struggles, Pierre and her student colleagues successfully added more than 600 children from more than 15 orphanages to the database, all in a single summer.

According to Stevens, the current emphasis on volunteers will shift as the completion of the database nears. “We also want to support the orphans in the transition to a new home. This means improving schools, hospitals and community centers.”

McCullough hopes that within five years, KaeMe’s efforts will help the Ghanaian government find families for the majority of orphans and reduce the number of orphanages to 40.

“What we are facilitating is for each individual community to be self-sufficient and capable of caring for and finding homes for their orphans,” McCullough said. “Whatever a child’s specific health or education needs are, they will have people in place to meet those needs.”

The hard work of the volunteers in Ghana and the commitment by KaeMe’s founders to be more efficient, reliable and targeted to the needs of Ghana’s people are helping bring the organization’s goals into fruition.

Stevens puts it best, saying, “We’re a partner with the government. We’re not coming in as a kind of western people that know it all…we know that we’re ignorant of so many wonderful things that the Ghanaian people have to offer. Can we solve all the problems? No way. Can we make a difference in a lot of kids’ lives? For sure.”

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