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November 22, 2015

Creating families for orphans in Ethiopia

Creating families for orphans in Ethiopia

Three CIA grads use art and design skills to help a nonprofit cause

By Julie Troha

Millions of people around the world sponsor children in need through charitable organizations. But not many sponsors get the chance to meet them in person. CIA grad Jeff Mancinetti ’09 and his wife, Emily Mancinetti, visited their sponsor child in Ethiopia, and their experience catalyzed a project that’s now changing 30 orphans’ lives.

The project, called 30 Hearts, follows a new model for helping orphans. It matches volunteer mothers with five children each. Six of these new families live together in a group home for five years, receiving the counseling and care they need to develop strong relationships. Then they move into private homes in the community as permanent adoptive families.

The Mancinettis co-founded the 30 Hearts project with two longtime friends, Joe and Ranae Seestadt. Now, two more friends who are also CIA grads—Jerry Birchfield ’09 and Jessica Birchfield ’09—have joined in to help. Jeff, Jerry, and Jessica are all using their art and design skills in different ways to make this nonprofit effort succeed.

It all started with an Ethiopian child named Weinitu. The Mancinettis had been sponsoring her for years, and had begun to wonder how they could possibly meet her. In 2010, Jeff attended a presentation by one of his former CIA professors, Kidist Getachew ’07 (BFA ’03). She spoke about how her waterfall installation project for IngenuityFest related to problems with water in her homeland of Ethiopia. It rang a bell for Jeff. He rushed to speak with her afterward, and she offered to help him visit the country. Jeff and Emily were on a plane within months. “Her family took us everywhere, and we even stayed with them,” Jeff recalls. “I don’t know what we would have done for that first trip without them.”

After the trip, Jeff stayed in touch with the translator he’d used there. He began asking what more he and Emily could do to help. The translator happened to know the executive director of a local nonprofit called Stand for the Vulnerable Organization. SVO has multiple projects throughout Ethiopia, including in a town called Bako. The town is a trading crossroads where many abandoned children end up living on the streets. So in collaboration with 4others, a California-based nonprofit that’s handling finances and donations for 30 Hearts, the team started talking about founding an orphanage.

Their initial research revealed that many countries are moving away from the traditional orphanage model. “There are some good orphanages, but there are also a lot of problems with kids growing up in an institutional setting,” says Jeff. “We realized the core of what they need is a family.” But in Bako, people don’t typically adopt children who they’re not related to.

That’s when they got the idea to foster the families as well as the children. SVO began working with a network of local churches to find women who were willing to serve as adoptive mothers. “They’re basically looking at it as their way to give back to their community and to serve God while becoming mothers,” says Jeff. While all of the women are currently single, they embrace the possibility of marrying one day after completing their five years in the new family development home.

Jeff returned to Ethiopia last year with just one other co-founder. “It was kind of crazy because I was trying to do video and photo and administration work,” Jeff remembers. This year’s trip, his third, would be the first time he’d visited since the project launched; the first time he’d get to meet the children and mothers. He wanted time to focus on videography, his specialty. So he asked for help from Jerry, a studio artist who also teaches photography at CIA. The goal was to capture images that tell a compelling story for 30 Hearts donors and supporters.

This documentary approach was a departure for Jerry. “In my own studio work I’m making abstract photographs and sculpture and prints, and showing them all together,” he says. “It felt like a shift in a really great way to be able to use the camera for this purpose.” He assumed they’d be shooting in a removed way, like event photographers. But it turned out the kids loved being photographed. In the absence of a common language, the camera turned into a communication tool. Jerry even handed a camera to the kids at one point, and the images they made are some of his favorites from the trip.

Jessica initially planned to assist Jerry and Jeff with their documentary work. But she also had a larger idea brewing. In addition to her full-time work as an industrial design consultant with Balance Inc. and Moen, one of her side projects has been to sew bags for an Etsy shop. She and Jeff started brainstorming about how that experience could help her create income-generating projects for the mothers at 30 Hearts. “But do they even like sewing? I wanted to make sure this is valuable to them as well,” Jessica says. “I’m interested in bringing design thinking into it, thinking about what would be empowering to these women personally.” She says she started approaching the idea with the same questions she’d ask when faced with a client project.

During the trip she focused on researching opportunities and making connections. After speaking with the 30 Hearts women and the local government, possible ideas range from making crafts to farming fresh produce. “I’m really excited because I originally went into industrial design to have a positive effect on the world,” she says. “This is one of the first independent projects I’ve been on that really gets at the heart of why I chose industrial design to begin with.”

Jeff still marvels at the fact that the 30 Hearts project is really happening. “We’re just ordinary people,” he says. “I went to art school and my wife was a teacher. We don’t have experience in nonprofit work or fundraising or international development.” They’re all volunteers, with other jobs and responsibilities. But he believes their faith and the generosity of others have helped them create something bigger than they ever imagined possible.

Jessica echoes the same feeling. “We learned you don’t have to derail your life to be able to help others,” she says. “The trip was only one week, but it opened our eyes to so many other things we can do to help—not just in Ethiopia, but right here in Cleveland. It’s about changing your awareness.”

The work isn't over now that 30 Hearts has begun hosting its initial six families. Right now they're leasing a motel-style space, so the next step is to build a custom-designed space of their own. The government has already granted them land. The land is even big enough to expand from 30 to possibly 90 children in the future. The 30 Hearts team plans to stay involved long term, says Jeff. “We want the families to know we’re not just sending dollars—our hearts are in this too.”

Above, in the middle of the back row are, from left, CIA grads Jerry Birchfield, Jessica Birchfield, and Jeff Mancinetti in Bako, Ethiopia in October 2015. To see videos and photos from the team’s trip to Ethiopia and to learn more about the project, visit 30hearts.org.

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