SEP–DEC 2009

10/16 10/19

Toronto, Canada


....Bougainvillea branches wove through trees of lilac. Rubber trees grew forty feet tall.

But Zambia’s lush foliage belied the massive starvation of its children. It was 1999. AIDS had been killing off Zambian mothers in epidemic proportions since the mid-‘80’s, leaving nearly a whole generation of children orphaned in what was and is considered one of the world’s poorest countries.

It was thoughts of these children that pulled Padilla from her home in Tucson to Lusaka, Zambia. Months earlier, she was thunderstruck by the caption under a photo she saw in the July 4, 1999 Arizona Daily Star of children eating. These are some of the 100 children being fed everyday at the Fountain of Hope. The Fountain of Hope had 2,000 children registered.

“As a mother I was so horrified,” said Padilla. “Who gets to decide which 100 children out of 2,000 gets to eat that day? I basically put down the newspaper and thought, ‘I can feed 1 or 200 children a day even as far away as Zambia.’ I knew I could do that. And so I set about figuring out how to do it.”

Her how turned out to be the Zambian Children’s Fund (ZCF) and the Chishawasha Children’s Home of Zambia (CCHZ), its sister nonprofit. Chishawasha is a Bimba word, meaning that which lives on. Both nonprofits are dedicated to nourishing Zambian children into healthy, educated, loved and loving adults. They do this by providing houses in Zambia for children to live in, an educational program for them to learn in, and consistent mothering by the adults around them.

“I was not willing to just feed the children and say, ‘Oh now go back and resume your life on the streets,’” said Padilla, a lifelong peace and justice activist. “So within a couple of months I had decided I needed to raise them as my own and give them everything I tried to give my own children. And so that’s how it evolved.”

During her first extensive nine-month stay in Zambia in January 2001, Padilla quickly discovered that too many grandmothers were trying to support and raise more than 20 orphaned children by themselves. “They don’t have the luxuries of social security and pensions,” she said. “I realized stress-related diseases were in fact killing the grandmothers because they’re watching the children starve.”

In response, she has started the Ambuya Project. Ambuya means grandmother. Chishawasha hires grandmothers, takes in the grandchildren of grandmothers who have been diagnosed with a terminal illness, and educates as many children as possible.

“We have become an outlet for desperate grandmothers who so deserve it,” said Padilla, who travels back and forth between Zambia and Tucson. In keeping with her desire to help rebuild Zambia, her staff at Chishawasha is 100% Zambian.

Along with food, education is a top priority. By the end of this year, Chishawasha will have twelve classrooms. In Zambia, students must pay school fees and supply themselves with everything: books, paper, school uniforms. “The orphans were so much in danger and were being thrown out of school for lack of payment.” Over 100 children attend Chishawasha’s school. Forty of them come from the surrounding village.

“We give those children breakfast and lunch, clothing and shoes, and medical care as they need it,” said Padilla. “But those children have a grandmother or aunt to care for them.”

She added that the Tucson Unified School District has always been very generous, donating books, blackboards, desks and tables. Bookman’s has given them tens of thousands of books, which feed the libraries in each Chishawasha home, an unheard of luxury.

Chishawasha teaches every child sustainable farming, and a skill whether or not they’re able to continue to college. “Because unemployment is so high in Zambia we need to know they have something they can barter with, have some way of surviving,” said Padilla. “By the time these children reach 20 or 21, they will be able to survive and have a family and keep their family going.”

In the summer of 2007, New York City photographer Klaus Schoenwiese taught twelve of the children how to take pictures. They shot photos of their town, their villages, people fishing, everyday life in Zambia. Their photos can be seen in the November 2007 Smithsonian Magazine article, “Point. Shoot. See.”

Although Padilla has fallen in love with all Zambian children, (“They are beautiful children, just amazingly hopeful, happy children,”) she has a favorite--Daniel.

The police brought Daniel to Chishawasha in July 2001. He was only two years old and had been living by himself on the streets of Lukasa. No one knew his name or anything else about him. He was severely malnourished, covered with open running sores, barely able to talk.

“Two weeks later we decided we had to name the baby,” said Padilla. “We had fifteen older children by then. We had a family vote of what to name the baby. So we named him Daniel. The children also decided he needed to be a Padilla. Which is fairly ridiculous---the only Mexican name in Zambia.”

At first he could do nothing but lay on the floor. The white of Padilla’s skin scared him.

“But we fed him and gave him a bath,” said Padilla. “And for these children baths are a real luxury. We put medicine on his sores and put him in some soft-footed American jammies and by that time it was like ‘Wow, this woman’s wonderful. I don’t know what’s wrong with her skin, but she’s pretty good.’ So I became Daniel’s Ambuya.”

He grew two inches his first month there. “Daniel’s still with us,” said Padilla. “He’s now in the 3rd grade, a very handsome, healthy little boy who’s an outstanding dancer and outstanding drummer, just fantastic. Almost from the time Daniel got up and started running around, he also started dancing and he also started turning things over and drumming and drumming well.”

For the first time he is sophisticated enough to realize that Padilla is not his blood grandmother, as he’d always thought. But she is his oldest living memory. A good one, no doubt, no matter how funny-looking her skin.

How to help:

We need everything one needs to raise and educate hundreds of children, that’s all we need,” said Padilla with a laugh. Padilla is available to speak at schools, churches, and other organizations.

Please donate now to help us raise and educate our children!