Mama Emma watched as her next-door neighbor, Don Rogers, filled tubes with soil, poked in seeds and watered them. "I can do that," she thought. Soon tree seedlings filled her front yardsmall trees she could sell to break out of the cycle of poverty.
Those weren't the only seeds germinating 16 years ago in Mwanza, Tanzania. Prayers were answered, and Empowering Lives International began to grow. According to Rogers, ELI's founder and international director, the "plague of poverty stemmed from a lack of ideas and opportunities." Determined to make a difference, he started gathering community leaders, asking about their struggles, praying with them, looking at available resources and coming up with solutions.
Those humble beginnings not only impacted people in Tanzania, but also a student attending Azusa Pacific University. As a child, when Lori Eaton heard missionaries speak, she'd pray, "Lord I'll do anything, but I don't want to go to Africa." However, Eaton said that an opportunity to go on a short-term mission trip with ELI in 1995 challenged her to trust God with her fears.
She went and fell in love with people like Mama Emma. In keeping with the regional traditions of her country, Mama Emma's name is derived from her first-born child, in other words Emma's Mama.
"Their passion for God was amazing to me," Eaton said. "I saw a lot of suffering and hard situations, but they had a love and joy that could only come from the Lord. I wanted to be around that more."
Now the short-term missions coordinator at ELI's Upland headquarters, Eaton described how volunteers traveled around in those early days, and camped in tents as they held crusade-type events. The team also worked alongside local churches helping with building projects or whatever was needed. Over the years, ELI established training centers and built housing where volunteers now stay, and the focus on Christ remains the same.
And now volunteers work alongside experienced staff.
In Tanzania, ELI's programs train thousands of needy farmers how to make better use of their resourceslike chickens, said Eaton. When people don't know how to keep chickens healthy, they stop laying eggs. Then owners "kill the chickens and eat the meat so there's no more chickens." But ELI teaches farmers how to multiply the chickens and keep them producing.
"In a few years, maybe they'll have 20 chickens instead of two," she said.
That knowledge diminishes the poverty struggle in one of the world's poorest countries.
Assessing the needs
According to Eaton, each community has different needs, though in Kenya, alcoholism is rampant. Poverty cultivates a hopelessness that turns people to alcohol. They spend what little money they have on it and, without enough for school fees, their children remain uneducated, limiting future job opportunities.
"It's an unending cycle," she said. "If we can stop the alcohol, that's going to stop the cycle of poverty."
As people learn life skills, money goes toward building up their small businesses and they begin investing in their children. Once educated, those children become positioned to get better jobs, and that cultivates hope.
ELI's anti-alcohol program even improved the family dynamic for one of ELI's own staff, Michelle Kiprop. She first went to Kenya as a short-term missionary while a high school student in Alta Loma. Later, after becoming an RN, she moved to Kenya where she fell in love and got married.
Her mother-in-law, Mama William, was an alcoholic.
"It was so bad that she was incapable of properly caring for William when he was a child," Kiprop said. "He wound up being raised in an amazing adoptive family. But over the decades, he continued to reach out to his mother."
According to Kiprop, shortly after they married in 2007, Mama William entered ELI's anti-alcohol program. Completely surrendering her life to Christ, she's been sober ever since.
Now Mama William inspires others including Kiprop, who oversees Kenyan Christians at the UPEC Chebaiywa Health Center.
"Jesus modeled a ministry style that reached out and touched a person's body, mind and spirit," Kiprop said. "As we encounter patients, it is our desire to see them through the eyes of Christ and that Christ may be seen in us and through the work we do."
The center empowers individuals to live healthier and more productive lives through prevention, treatment and emergency care. It also offers a pharmacy, laboratory, HIV testing and counseling, as well as maternity services, optometry and dentistry.
In the Sudan and Democratic Republic of the Congo, the majority of ELI's programs center around schools located in the slums, where slum-dwelling children didn't know where their next meal was coming from, Eaton said. They had no hope for the future. but now, they go to school where they get fed physically, spiritually and emotionally. Out of 2,000 schools in Sudan, ELI's schools test among the top five.
Sponsorship opportunities permit those who partner with ELI to give this type of sustainable gift: one of knowledge, hope and health that not only impacts families and villages today but future generations also.
"Participation on this journey of empowering lives is needed and appreciated, and there is no greater urgency to reach more lives than now," Rogers said. "It may be difficult for one person to change the whole world, but together we can change the whole world for one person!"
When Rogers returned to Tanzania a few months ago, he found Mama Emma amid rows of trees and flowers in a nursery tended to by more than 25 women. She was eager to share her storyand gratitude.
"This project has helped me and my family for all these years!" she told him. "I have fed and clothed my children and even sent them to school because of this work. I thank God that I am able to create and build a future with hope for my children. God is good!"
For more information, visit www.empoweringlives.org.