Mothering Africa

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Story by Deb Peterson | Photographs from Sarah Fennel.

Sarah Fennel with Her Kids
Sarah Fennel with Her Kids

All the love Sarah Fennel absorbed from her parents over the years now flows mightily all the way to Hundro Village in Kenya, where the 30-year-old Fayetteville woman recently opened an orphanage.

“You don’t think about how rare it is to be loved so much,” says Sarah about her mother’s and father’s love for their children. “I want to give that love to others. I see so many kids who don’t have that. They want to be loved and don’t even know how to be.”

1.9 million orphans live in Kenya, one third of whom have lost their parents to HIV/AIDS. As of last August, 10 of those orphans, ages 2 to 17, now have a safe, happy home, thanks to Sarah.

It all started when Sarah left a business card for her new organization, Restore Humanity, at the family home of a college roommate, Joab Opot, when she attended his wedding in 2007.

“I didn’t say anything about it,” she said. “I just left the card.”

Sarah had started Restore Humanity after helping AIDS patients, orphans and abused children in South Africa as a volunteer. She was determined to organize the many people she met who wanted a way to help, who felt the same way she did⎯that restoring humanity in others restored humanity in herself as well.

Months after the wedding, Sarah received a call from Joab’s family. They had a building, originally intended to be a hotel, that had been sitting empty for 10 years. Mrs. Opot’s husband had died. Would she help them turn the building into a children’s home in his name?

Sarah flew to Kenya and for six weeks asked questions, talked to authorities, determined the feasibility of the project, researched the possibility of keeping siblings together. She met with school officials, police officers, the village chief and assistant chief, the first ever in that area to be a woman.

“I was sitting in church with Mrs. Opot when she announced what we were planning to do,” Sarah said. “That afternoon, people were lined up at the gate with their children.

“Can you take them?”

It would be three years before the doors of the James Christopher Opot Center for Children opened wide for 10 of Hundro’s children. Sarah had work to do first⎯the building needed remodeling, electricity, water, septic.

“I wanted to be sure we had enough money to operate for a full year before we took children,” she said.

Now, she’s busy raising money for a second year of operating expenses before she fills the 20 beds available at the center. Her hopes and dreams for the future include the possibility of a health clinic, subsidizing school supplies for kids in the community, and continuing to create stability for “her kids.”

“I want to give them all the love they need to have the confidence they need to help their own community,” she says.

The children are clearly grateful.

“Sarah, you know you’re my mom now,” 15-year-old Ester said to Sarah.

“The kids are a family,” Sarah says. “All of them are absolutely incredible kids.”

In December, Sarah returned to Kenya with her best friend since childhood, Kimberly Clinehens, who serves on her board of directors. They were joined by Sarah’s parents, Joe and Jean Ann Fennel of Fayetteville.

“They sat right down and played with the kids,” Sarah said. “They were grandparents. The kids were climbing in their laps. My parents sit on my board of directors, but it’s such a different thing to really experience it.”

They also experienced Mrs. Opot, Sarah’s mother when she’s in Hundro Village. Mrs. Opot is called “mathe.” It means mother. She taught school for 33 years.

“I live in her home when I’m there,” Sarah said. “She takes very good care of me.”

And she helps Sarah learn Swahili and Luo, the villager’s language.

“Most of what you hear is a mix of Swahili, Luo and English,” Sarah says.

Mrs. Opot’s nephew, Patrick Lumumba, a certified nurse, is managing director of the center.

“My dad describes Patrick perfectly,” Sarah says. “Patrick does everything for everybody else, every day.”

When Sarah is in the U.S., she’s busy spreading awareness of what life is like in other parts of the world.

“It’s so awesome for me to connect people here with those in other countries,” she said. “I’m happier than I’ve ever been. I’m so blessed to be doing what I love. There are so many similarities in people. If people would start treating people better, even their neighbors…we’re humans helping humans.”

Sarah doesn’t believe in guilting people into giving.

“They don’t want that in Africa,” she says. “It’s not constructive at all.”

To help Sarah help Africa, visit her website at

“People think it has to be a huge check,” she says, “but our orphanage was built with $10 and $20 donations.”

M! April/May 2011.

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