Finding Hope Together: In Celebration of World Autism Day

How many of us are raising or know a child with autism? Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) is a brain disorder that is characterized by difficulties in social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication and repetitive behaviors. It is estimated by the Centers for Disease Control that 1 out of every 68 children worldwide is affected.

Though the diagnostic numbers of this condition with a wide spectrum of effects are on the rise, parents who have a child with autism in the United States often face a difficult and lonely parenting journey. These parents are overwhelmed long before the diagnosis, but learning that a child has autism only adds to that feeling. Many parents describe themselves as depressed, frustrated, and worn out to the point of having nothing left by their child’s patterns of unpredictable behavior.

For parents of autistic children in Africa, the challenges are even greater. In African nations like Kenya, raising a child with any special needs brings a huge stigma with it. Many people in this part of the world believe that parents did something wrong or are some how cursed if their child’s physical or emotional state is anything less than perfect.

This means that parents with autistic children, just like parents of children with other disabilities, quickly become outcasts—with few resources offered by their community leaders to help raise their child or children. They have few places to turn to for life-giving support.

Feed the Children–Kenya loves children with disabilities. We adamantly oppose such prejudice and want parents of children, no matter their child’s challenges, to have the resources they need to parent well.

In celebration of World Autism Day on April 2, Feed the Children’s Dagoretti Children Centre (DCC) hosted an event in Nairobi for parents and caregivers of children with Autism Spectrum Disorders.

More than twenty parents who have autistic children traveled from the surrounding communities to attend the event facilitated by Feed the Children staff and by Stephen Muga, the rehabilitation coordinator.  Parents came with their autistic children and shared with one another the challenges they were facing.

“These mothers and fathers are not only parents, but they are therapists, psychologists, mentors,” Stephen said. “Their work never ends!”

DSCN2544Feed the Children–Kenya hoped that the workshop would help break down barriers and improve both acceptance and awareness of the disorder by educating and empowering parents to work with their children. The workshop presented parents and caregivers with valuable strategies to help them create a calmer and more conducive home environment for their children.

Some of the parents confessed to being confused on how to handle their child.

“What do I do when my child does not respond to my directions?” one mother asked.

Stephen took the parents through the signs that indicate a child has autism and at the end of the day, parents and caregivers had learned to identify triggers of unwanted behavior, structure situations to prevent avoidable behavioral problems, communicate clearly, encourage cooperation through the child’s interest and choose the right diet for the child.

Parents had the opportunity to interact closely with their children through different activities such as arranging letters to form words, arranging shapes (most of the children were drawn to circular objects), and inserting string through beads to make traditional necklaces.

The message of the workshop was simple: what autistic children need most are parents who accept their children, create a support group, and cultivate an autism-friendly environment at home. With these factors, the child will thrive.

DSCN2583By the end of the activity-packed day, all of the parents had decided to form ongoing support groups to share their experiences and encourage other parents who were skeptical of talking about their autistic children. The group chose the mission statement, “Together we are strong!

Feed the Children–Kenya was so happy to facilitate this workshop!

Feed the Children Goes to Washington

One of the most exciting new developments in the past year for Feed the Children has been the opening of a new office in Washington DC. Joining the ranks of its non-profit counterparts, Feed the Children created a government relations team to be a voice in Washington and to represent the millions of children and families we serve. Most of all we see the work of this team as the group to lead the charge into advocacy.

“Advocacy” means many things. At Feed the Children, advocacy educates, elevates conversations and promotes policies to address the systemic issue of hunger and poverty. We seek to be a voice for the voiceless. We seek to partner with governmental agencies already engaged in similar work both in the US and around the world.

US flag on building

Lobbying, or directly speaking to policy makers, is only one function of advocacy and is practiced by the two members of our advocacy team as well as myself and members of the executive team.

Bottom line—Feed the Children is and ALWAYS will be a non-partisan organization. We only take positions on specific issues that impact the communities we serve on a case-by-case basis. As a charity organization, we can’t make donations to any political party or endorse a candidate for public office.

In the last several months, we have built some very solid relationships with the Administration and members of Congress (on both sides of the political spectrum).  We have significantly raised our profile, not only with government officials, but also with our nonprofit counterparts.  It has given us a seat at the proverbial table and we have been widely welcomed.

food voucher

A day in the life of our team in Washington is different every day—often driven by the legislative schedule and the needs of our programing offices at any given time.

Most recently, our team pounded the pavement working to protect the Supplemental Nutrition and Assistance Program (SNAP), America’s largest and most effective hunger relief program. Recently, the House of Representatives voted $40 billion in cuts to the SNAP program but must be approved by the Senate and signed by the President to be signed into law. So the fight is not over. We are now encouraging members of the House and Senate to come up with a compromise bill that will reform SNAP while protecting the most vulnerable of our society.   This is only one example of advocacy in action.

Additionally, our staff in Washington also works to reduce roadblocks. For example, gifts in kind donations have been freed in international customs because of the work of our D.C. team. They’ve also been in conversation with the US Department of State and Embassies to handle other international operational issues that affect our ability to serve more children.  And of course, they fundraise too!  They are busy researching international grants and domestic program grants that can increase our impact through federal funding.

In addressing hunger in the US and around the world, the situation we are faced with is that even if we quadrupled our revenue and service, Feed the Children couldn’t begin to solve the child hunger problem alone. The problem has to be addressed in partnership with those who work in Washington among many others. And, Feed the Children is glad to be here in Washington—especially during seasons like this one.

From Skeptic to Believer: How Our CEO’s Wife Became Our Biggest Supporter

Once upon a time, only a few months ago, I never would have given Feed the Children a dime.

I never would have written anything nice about them in public.

I never would have put on a Feed the Children t-shirt.

e hagan 3 edited

And my husband Kevin was Feed the Children’s new President and CEO.

As a 30-something pastor already involved through my church in supporting relief and development organizations, I was leery of the big promises of an organization with such a wide scope. I opted to support and give to my local church and to other do-good organizations with which I had a personal connection—places where I was confident my dollar was being put to good use.

Yet, I supported my husband’s calling to lead Feed the Children (I’d never seen him so passionate about anything quite like this) and soon thereafter I said yes to my first field program trip in August of 2012 to Malawi and Kenya… only because Kevin asked me to go with him.

As we boarded the plane Africa-bound, I sought to have an open mind.  Maybe it might be different than I imagined?

e hagan 2 editedAnd it was. From day one, I began to experience some of the most pure and life-changing work I’d ever seen—though I’d already traveled extensively in the developing world, coming to Africa twice before.  The Feed the Children I began to get to know personally surprised me.

I was surprised when I met some beautiful women in remote villages in Malawi who brought their toddlers to one of our feeding centers. I heard them say to me through translators, “Thank you so much. There is no other way we could feed our babies if you didn’t help us. Feed the Children is the only support network we’ve ever known that has stayed here for the long haul.”

I was surprised when I chatted with staff over cups of coffee in Kenya with so much light in their eyes. Their unbelievable dedication to improving the lives of children and deep spiritual core humbled me. I knew if I’d ever met a saint— these leaders were the real deal.

Kevin and I with the staff at one of our children's homes in Kenya
Kevin and I with the staff at one of our children’s homes in Kenya

I was surprised when I visited a school in the slums of Nairobi and put shoes on the tattered feet of first graders. As I watched delight come to their faces, I couldn’t help but have Isaiah’s words come to mind: “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news.” I realized these children could now live into their God-given mission of simply be-ing because Feed the Children facilitated this gift of school shoes to them.  Wow.

E Hagan 1 edited

And over the past seventeen months, as I’ve continued to travel to field programs in other regions of the world like the Philippines and Latin America with Kevin, the story has been the same. Feed the Children does amazing work and I am a changed woman. I now own at least five Feed the Children t-shirts. And no one paid me to write this blog.

I’m not saying that Feed the Children is perfect. It has come a long way, but it still has a long way to go in achieving its mission of ensuring that no child goes to bed hungry, but for now, this skeptic of a CEO’s wife is a super fan! I’ve seen the work. I’ve met the staff. I’ve hugged the kids. And I can tell you: these are good people doing amazing things!

For the other skeptics out there too, I hope that you’ll believe as my husband says all the time, “It’s a new day at Feed the Children” because it truly is.

The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities: Sending America’s High Standards Around the World

Moses Odhiambo proved that disability is no excuse to one’s goal when he won the 21k wheelchair half marathon at the Standard Chartered Nairobi Marathon held on 27th October.
Moses Odhiambo proved that disability is no reason not to accomplish your goal when he won the 21k wheelchair half marathon at the Standard Chartered Nairobi Marathon held on 27th October. He grew up in Feed the Children’s Dagoretti Children’s Center in Kenya and received his first wheelchair from Feed the Children.

Disability prevents self-sufficiency

A child in Guatemala receives immediate relief from hunger with regular meals from Feed the Children. Her village’s water supply is made clean and safe; disease is kept at bay through proper sanitation. As she grows, she learns in Feed the Children-built schools.

When she enters early adulthood, many of her friends discover self-sufficiency through work at a local factory. But she does not. Cerebral palsy limits her appeal to employers, and there are no laws protecting her from discrimination based on her disability.

The final pillar of Feed the Children’s approach to breaking the cycle of poverty — livelihoods — is out of her reach.

Disability prevents valuable participation in relief

An Army veteran who lost both legs in Afghanistan wants to impart the skills he learned while deployed. He joins an international relief organization, eager to teach civil planning in emerging nations. But he finds that countries with the greatest need for his skills are the least friendly to people in wheelchairs.

This wounded warrior’s wealth of hard-won experience can’t be shared because of the simple yet insurmountable roadblock of inaccessibility.

An international necessity

“I visit the center often because FTC is my family, when I have personal problems, FTC always helps me,” Moses said.  Whenever his wheelchair needs repair, FTC-K take care of it. Moses is married and lives with his family.
Moses said, “I visit the center often because Feed the Children is my family.” Whenever his wheelchair needs repair, Feed the Children takes care of it. Today, Moses is married and lives with his family.

Each of these situations represents a breakdown at the most crucial point of a charitable process. And each is addressed by the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities currently being discussed in U.S. Senate committees.

Ratification fell short in 2012 by just five votes. Feed the Children strongly believes the Disability Convention must be ratified in the current congressional session.

The Disability Convention contains provisions modeled after the United States’ own Americans with Disabilities Act, and it will bring the ADA’s spirit of justice and equality to all nations who sign on.

America’s gold standard for the treatment of disabled people will be exported across the globe, encouraging a uniformity of opportunity for those who need assistance in realizing their full potential.

A chance for America to lead by example

What the Disability Convention does not do is impose any added regulations on American businesses or private citizens. It simply provides a framework other countries can voluntarily use to bring their standards for treatment of disabled people up to our level.

So why should the U.S. lend its full support to this convention?

Because we are leaders who should be at the forefront of ensuring that opportunities are available to those with disabilities. Ratifying the Disability Convention will strengthen our credibility as we participate in international conversations that influence global legislation.

And as Secretary of State John Kerry says, we should set an example as we urge other nations to “be more like us.”

Vital to Feed the Children’s mission

At Feed the Children, we support that which supports our mission: providing hope and resources for those without life’s essentials. This mission extends to all who need our help.

We must not allow disability to keep people from self-sufficiency.

We must not allow disability to prevent those with hearts for service from serving others.

Feed the Children urges you to join us and over 750 other organizations in supporting this vital agreement. Make your voice heard today at DisabilityTreaty.org’s Action Center.

The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities won’t guarantee an easy road for the world’s one billion disabled people. But it will help organizations like Feed the Children fulfill our mission — for everyone.