Local man joins mission to feed neglected children in EthiopiaBy FAITH SWYMER
SANFORD Â— Joe Bridges approached short-term missionary trips with an open-minded love of traveling and embracing foreign cultures.
But then he arrived in Ethiopia.
During that trip in late 2004, Bridges was shocked to witness the abuse and neglect of the country's estimated 4.6 million abandoned children who wander the dirt streets, often the victim of Africa's AIDS epidemic and economic despair. Many fell victim to businessmen who promised their parents they would attend school and have a better future, only to end up in sweatshops, if they haven't escaped.
"Seeing children living on the dangerous and dirty streets without an adult guardian in sight was totally life-changing," said Bridges, a Deep River native who moved to Memphis, Tenn., upon college graduation from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "This actually began a three-year journey for my wife, Karyn, and me to explore why Ethiopia, and really the world, is full of situations where children seem to be the target of Satan's energy."
Inspired by the lives he touched on a short-term mission, Bridges teamed up with missionary Michael Granger of Indianapolis, Ind., and Ethiopian Nega Meaza to form the Children's Home Ethiopia in the capital city of Addis Ababa, a non-government organization that works with street children to meet their physical, emotional, developmental and spiritual needs before ultimately placing them with an Ethiopian family.
To help fund the initiative, Bridges returned to Memphis to jumpstart The Forsaken Children, a humanitarian non-profit organization that looks to build awareness and funds to aid projects that benefit Ethiopia's orphans.
"One thing I realized while in Ethiopia was that I, a man who had never made more than $25,000 in a year, had great financial wealth in the eyes of most Ethiopians," he said. "Now,The Forsaken Children's mission is to advocate for Ethiopia's children at risk by building sustainable financial support... and helping these organizations to develop into strategic, long-lasting interventions."
Through the organization, two additional projects emerged to complement the work done at the Children's Home, one of which Bridges used to reach out to a close resource to lead Â— his older brother, Jonathan, a Sanford resident.
Jonathan Bridges, who was working at Wyeth Vaccines in 2006 after serving as the Fish Barn manager with the N.C. Cooperative Extension, left his post to head the organization's Kota Ganate Agriculture Project at the urging of his brother, the youngest of four Bridges siblings. The project aims to boost the country's farming economy with hopes the financial benefit will lead to less children being abandoned because of economic hardship. The project includes a small for-profit farm that will be operated out of southern Ethiopia to provide an additional source of income to fund the organization's projects.
For Jonathan Bridges, the opportunity came as a surprise that was met with immediate hesitance to someone who had never traveled out of the country or had any ambition to.
"However, during that first visit to Ethiopia I got the confirmation that I needed," he said of his first trip in January 2007. Jonathan Bridges has since returned to the country several times to work for the organization, including a recent trip over several months this past spring and summer with his wife Jessica, when he interacted daily with the orphans.
"It's shock, honestly," he said of Ethiopia's living conditions. "There's just poverty and disease there everywhere."
The agricultural initiative was inspired partly by Ethiopian 13-year-old Ephrem, who was abandoned in Addis Ababa and has no recollection of his birthday Â— his age is an estimate Â— or where he comes from.
"There's so many tragic situations you see there," said Jonathan Bridges.
In addition to the Children's Home and the agricultural initiative, the organization is also currently involved in a Student and Family Education Project to send children to school.
"Put simply, The Forsaken Children's plan of action is to work with Christ-centered Ethiopian projects that fit into one of our three strategies Â— rehabilitation, prevention and sustainability," said Joe Bridges. "We believe that hope is available to Ethiopia's children at risk through hearing and understanding the Gospel of Jesus Christ, leaving the streets, and becoming part of a family."
Although his path into humanitarian aid and mission work was not foreseen, Lee Christian School Administrator Stephen Coble was delighted to learn that Joe Bridges, a 1997 Lee Christian graduate, ventured down that path.
"I knew they were involved in their church... and their church was very mission-oriented," said Coble of the family's membership at Flat Springs Baptist Church on Deep River Road in Sanford. "I was pleasantly surprised to hear he got involved in the mission field... it's definitely its own service that has its own blessings and blesses others."
The school will host the Bridges brothers as special guests as its weekly chapel service at 8:30 a.m. on Nov. 21. Coble has also taken the initiative to spread the word of The Forsaken Children to local pastors during the school's Pastor Appreciation Day.
"I would like to see more young people involved in this sort of business," said Coble. "It gets people's minds off their own problems. We're still among the most blessed in the world."
As for Joe Bridges, although he no longer resides in the Sanford area, he feels he brings the Christian roots he was raised with to the Memphis-based organization.
"Sanford provided me with a foundation for the faith I now have in Jesus," he said. "The staff of Lee Christian School, the Flat Springs Baptist Church, my own family, and many others from Sanford cultivated who I am today."
Â© 2008 by sanford.southernheadlines.com. All rights reserved.