Out of Africa: Foundation brings new hope to Kenyan orphans

Dwain Hebda

Dwain Hebda is a writer, editor and journalist living in Little Rock. The president of Ya!Mule Wordsmiths, he’s covered a wide range of subject matter over the course of his 40 years of professional writing that includes magazines, newspapers and books. When he’s not bringing the tales of Arkansas and her people to the page, Hebda and his wife spend their energy on their four grown children and three lovely dogs.
Dwain Hebda
Hellen Makani, who co-founded Seeds Ministry with her husband, holds a copy of 501 LIFE and was “Loving LIFE” with others in Kitale, Kenya. (Cindy DeRosa photo)

by Dwain Hebda

The well-worn phrase “It takes a village to raise a child,” is credited to an African proverb and speaks to the community’s collective responsibility for the welfare of the children in its midst. It is therefore the height of irony that in many places on the African continent, street children are increasingly abandoned, abused and forgotten, left as outcasts to survive by whatever means necessary.

Dr. Mark Cooper has seen this firsthand through his missionary work and nonprofit organization Chicks for Children Foundation. And the plight of these youngsters, the luckiest of whom end up in local orphanages if there is room for them, is what inspires the retired University of Central Arkansas professor to crisscross the globe to support them. 

“Increasingly, the focus is not so much on orphanage building as it is on community transformation,” he said.

“Community transformation requires a community of people who are more inclined to assume that role and responsibility to raise that village. More and more third world countries are really putting a whole lot more education and emphasis on the concept of ‘It takes a village.’

“The problem with that is, some villages don’t necessarily have people who have assumed roles and responsibilities to raise their village, to transform their community.”

Into the breach stepped Seeds Ministries, a local organization in Kenya that sought to provide the orphans with a better life through education, nutrition and other basic elements for a better life.

“What happened with Seeds Ministries and [founders] Pastor Richard and Hellen Makani is, they were introduced to a child that they noticed was abandoned, was starving,” Cooper said. “They asked the question, ‘Where did this child come from?’”

Cooper’s son, Jimmy, paved the way for the rest of the family, having felt a calling to missionary work with Seeds Ministries. Hearing of the conditions and the daily life of the youngsters, Mark and his wife, Linda, felt inexorably pulled to assist Jimmy in the care of the youngsters.

“At the time Jimmy went to Kenya they had about 23 orphans,” Mark said. “They also had an academy of a few dozen kids. And so, Mom and Dad become introduced to ‘his children.’”

In 2009, Mark and Linda traveled to Kenya for the first time to see Jimmy and his work up close. They came home inspired to help and founded the Chicks for Children Foundation in 2010 as a means to help support the work of Seeds Ministry serving local orphans.

“We recognized the need to find a credible way to engage people in providing funding support to grow the capacity for this Seeds Ministry and that’s what we did,” Mark said.

The couple’s activism on behalf of “Jimmy’s kids” has accomplished things that stretch the boundaries of possibility including building a medical clinic, greenhouse and arguably the most significant among the capital campaigns, new orphanage housing.

“I listened to a video the other day by a person who said, ‘If you want to know what to do, answer the question ‘What breaks your heart?’” Cooper said. “I thought, that explains the orphanage build. It broke my heart to recognize that you had kids, especially girls, who are at Seeds Ministries under the Seeds Ministries umbrella, they were at the academy, they were going to school, they were being medically treated, they had food to eat. But I saw pictures of them, in uniform, standing in front of their trash houses. Broke my heart.”

Just as Jimmy’s commitment to the orphans inspired his parents’ participation, so too have the Coopers’ passion for the cause inspired others here at home. Among the more unique events Chicks for Children hosts is the Chicken Dance Marathon fundraiser which started as a partnership between the foundation, a local Chik-fil-A restaurant and the Conway School District. It has since grown into school districts in England, Vilonia, Greenbrier and North Little Rock as well as several districts in Georgia, Colorado and Tennessee.

More recently, Mark Cooper developed a curriculum stressing leadership skills, rooted in faith, for which he recruited one of his former UCA students, Cindy DeRosa and her husband, David, to help refine and deliver. The couple accompanied the Coopers to Kenya and were moved by the experience.

“There’s one thing that stuck with me, when Dr. Cooper said when we help others and serve others, we become aware of our own strengths,” Cindy said. “So then others become aware of their strengths as well and they become equipped. He has visions of this effort giving back; it’s not like we go and serve these kids and feel sorry for them and bring all kinds of gifts. We don’t do that at all.

“His goal is to go and equip them with skills that do not require anything tangible, like actual leadership skills. It ultimately empowers them and they really step up. I was so blessed by witnessing some of these students as someone with so little who could offer so much.”