Charlotte nonprofit builds hope where there was none

by Frank DeLoache

Lubo Mijak knows what God has called him to do.

But in 2008, living here in Charlotte, Mijak and his friend Phillips Bragg had no idea how to build a school in a remote village half a world away.

“How do you build a school in Sudan? Where do you get the materials and labor? How do you make sure it’s built properly? We told ourselves, ‘Let’s get some help,’ ” Bragg recalled last week. But that question only led to even more questions.

Do an Internet search for “schools in Sudan,” and you’ll get more than 11,000 hits. “We got lost in the weeds,” Bragg said. “We found a whole lot of people with the same idea but very few who have been able to figure out how to do it.”

Bragg, whose family operates Bragg Financial Advisors in Charlotte, called a friend with Save The Children in Washington, D.C., who told him – not unkindly – that no large international organization would take on a one- or two-school project and that he and Mijak would have to bring at least $1 million to the table.

“I understand that mobilizing their folks is a huge undertaking, but that left us out in the cold,” Bragg said. And then his friend suggested Bragg and Mijak contact Patricia Shafer, a Charlotte resident who had international connections and had worked with Save The Children. Shafer had founded her own Charlotte-based nonprofit called Mothering Across Continents.

Bragg called Shafer, who agreed to talk to Mijak about his dream. In fact, she talked for hours with Mijak and Bragg “without ever asking how much money we had.”

She learned that Mijak is a Lost Boy of Sudan, one of thousands of young men orphaned and forced to flee by the genocide in Darfur.

Shafer agreed to help Mijak accomplish his dream, and this spring, if all goes as planned, workers will break ground on a school in Mijak’s village.

“And it’s because of Patricia that we’ve been able to do this,” Bragg said last week.

In her e-mails, Shafer calls herself “Chief Catalyst” for Mothering Across Continents because she doesn’t pretend that she can do it all herself. But she does have the knowledge and international connections to help others accomplish life-changing feats, and she encountered a large number of women in Charlotte who wanted to make a difference.

Her background is corporate strategy. She’s worked in senior positions of change management for corporations like Kraft Foods and Bank One. And she became involved in international nonprofit work, serving on a leadership committee of Save the Children.

Then, in late 2006, she wrote an opinion piece in the Charlotte Observer on World AIDS Day. If Charlotte truly aspires to become a global city, she wrote, not only do you have to want to have a winning Super Bowl team but you also have to engage issues on a world stage.” And she pointed out that the number of children orphaned by HIV/AIDS could more than twice fill Bank of America Stadium.

After that column appeared, Shafer recalled last week, “many people showed up on my radar screen, particularly women who said ‘I want to do something, but I don’t know where to begin. Just writing a check is not enough for me. Can you help? You have this international for- and nonprofit experience.’”

Shafer talked to Dr. Lyndall Hare, a friend and former director of the Lifetime Learning Institute at Central Piedmont Community College. Hare was serving on the board of a South Africa development fund at the time, and she also had heard from women who wanted to know how they could make a difference.

So on Mother’s Day 2007, Mothering Across Continents was born, with the idea that “volunteer catalysts” would adopt education projects and find partners for projects in some of the most impoverished places in the world, places not served by the United Nations or other nonprofit organizations. National Public Radio political commentator Cokie Roberts spoke at the inaugural gathering – most in the audience were women – in Charlotte.

Mothering Across Continents immediately adopted two projects in South Africa:

• Caring Schools, which helped create sustainable gardens that now provide nutritious food to students at three impoverished high school.

• Woza Moya Children’s Center, an early childhood development center in Kwa-Zulu Natal, offering play therapy and learning to children in “traumatized environments.”

Mothering Across Continents also follows another important principle: Its projects must be able to apply to other places – to be duplicated – preferably in many places, helping many people. Caring Schools, for instance, has spread sustainable garden projects to schools all over South Africa, Shafer said, and Woza Moya staff are taking programs to remote locations in the region.

Today, Mothering Across Continents has three part-time employees and about 100 volunteers working on five projects around the world.

In a volcanic region of Rwanda, a place with no electricity, running water or books, where the people suffer from malnutrition, ring worm and parasites, a Mothering team has founded This is Our Dream. Teachers, nurses and other volunteers from the U.S., Canada, Kenya and Uganda – some spending 80 days at a time – are providing training, medical care and better nutrition. Toms, the shoe company, has offered 1,000 pairs of shoes, and an egg production company in Arkansas has chosen This is Our Dream as a pilot for egg-based nutrition program. Altrusa in Charlotte just gave $500 to buy books, Shafer said.

Mothering Across Continents also has a project in Haiti, is about to launch one in Thailand and is helping Mijak and another Lost Boy in Atlanta build schools in their villages. Their project, with Bragg as one of the few male catalysts, is called Raising Sudan. Mothering Across Continents found a partner in Sudan – World Relief – that had the skill to build the schools.

But now it’s up to Mijak and Bragg to raise the money. They’ve raised about $130,000 and are working on faith that they will get the remaining $45,000 they need to finish the first school and $150,000 for the second school.

Shafer said Mothering Across Continents also is collaborating with Sudan Sunrise, the nonprofit founded by Manute Bol, the late professional basketball player who founded a nonprofit to build 41 schools in Sudan.

“We’re prepared to carry on the dream,” Shafer said last week. “… We’ve said that’s our goal. We’re very hopeful. …

“Since we started Mothering Across Continents, we’ve learned a lot about Charlotte. It really is a whole series of communities that get in engaged in making a difference –churches, Charlotte Rotary, schools, individuals.”

Splitting her time between south Charlotte and Tryon, in the N.C. mountains, Shafer really has two full-time jobs. She still runs a full-time, for-profit consulting practice, but she also gives her heart full time to helping others reach out to those who previously had no hope.

“It’s about 100 percent part of my life,” she said.