SEP–DEC 2009

10/16 10/19

Toronto, Canada

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......Since most resolutions are unfulfilled and forgotten by Groundhog Day, how does this 48-year-old receptionist hope to accomplish such a mighty goal?

“I am a kook, I guess, but I’ve accomplished a lot over the years,“ says Padilla, a single mother of four who laughs when asked if she is secretly a wealthy woman. It turns out that Padilla has already formed a Tucson-based non-profit corporation called the Zambian Children’s Fund. She’s also traveled, alone, to Lusaka and formed a Zambian board of directors there to get the ball rolling. She secured the donation of a small office space and otherwise accomplished more in 10 days last month than even she dared dream. But who is this woman?

Padilla is a longtime social activist, a grown-up flower child who never lost that 1960s-bred desire to change the world. Given her lofty resolution, it helps that she’s also a former paralegal who knows her way around a grant application. Padilla already has fed thousands of hungry people through a program she helped organize more than a decade ago. Tucson’s Table, now an established arm of the Community Food Bank, picks up prepared but unserved meals from restaurants and hotels and gives them to those in need. In the early 1990s, she was the owner of Uppity Women Used Books on East Congress Street. She closed the shop in 1995 and served as the first director of Women for Sustainable Technologies, a non-profit group she and a half dozen others founded that year. The group, which continues to sponsor an annual conference in Tucson, encourages women and girls to educate themselves and get involved with solar power, recycling, wind power and other technologies that don’t “take things away from the Earth”.

The article she saw on Independence Day detailed the massive human crisis in the southern African nation of Zambia, where an estimated 100,000 children have been orphaned by AIDS. According to the United Nations, Zambia – a  nation of nearly 10 million – has the highest concentration of AIDS orphans. More than 50 percent of the population is 16 years or younger.

“I reacted like a mom,” she says, remembering it was the photo caption that really got her attention. It read More than 2,000 children are registered at this center, but only about 100 a day can be fed. “I thought, My God, I can feed a hundred or so children a day.”

She went to work learning about Zambia and then wrote a letter to about 30 friends. She told them what she wanted to do and asked for help with expenses for a trip to Africa. “I figured I needed about $3,500 (the airfare alone was $1,900 round-trip),” says Padilla, who raised $2,300 and put the rest on credit cards. Padilla flew to Lusaka, a city of 2 million people, on Oct. 24 and met with religious leaders, relief workers and other people familiar with the problem of homeless children. She set nothing up in advance.

On her first night there, she met a 20-year-old woman named Susan. “The place I was staying was next to a church, and she assumed that I was part of the church and introduced herself. We talked for a long time, and she invited me to her home,” Padilla says. Padilla was introduced to Susan’s grandmother, who is struggling to raise 14 of her grandchildren – all of them orphaned by AIDS. She works in the fields all day while two of her adult, single daughters help with the kids.

It’s not just grandmothers who have taken in orphans. Relief organizations estimate that at least 50 percent of Zambians have taken in children who are not related to them. Interestingly, Padilla adds, none of the tribal languages (there are 17) has a word for “orphan”. “The boys go out and beg and hustle, trying to help,” Padilla says. “Frequently, the girls stay at home. They have nothing to do, and they are completely uneducated, and they are sitting there starving to death. The people trying to provide for them just can’t.”

Padilla, a 1969 graduate of Rincon High School, suddenly has tears in her eyes as she talks in the living room of her modest midtown home. It reminds her of when she cried at a Lusaka shelter operated by the Sisters of Charity. During the rainy season, which lasts almost half the year, some 200 children sleep in a windowless concrete room. “They literally have to sleep on top of one another,” Padilla says. “They surrounded me and started singing a welcome song they had been taught. It was a sweet, little children’s song – and I just started to bawl. Africans are very stoic and everybody was embarrassed that I would cry. I knew it was not acceptable, but I couldn’t help it. Even the nuns were embarrassed for me.”

Within a week of arriving in Lusaka, Padilla had organized a meeting to talk about establishing an orphanage for 500 children. The Zambians decided by the end of the meeting to start a non-governmental organization, similar to a non-profit agency in the states. The board included a retired minister, two social workers, a newspaper editor, a television journalist and a teacher. “One of them donated a small office space, and they told me it was my job to go back to the states and find them a computer,” Padilla says.

Asked why the Zambians took her seriously, she says “That’s a good question. I have no idea. People did say, ‘Well, who are you and what makes you think you can do this?’ – in much nicer words. Mostly, I just sat and talked to people.”

The American board of directors, which has just begun its fund-raising work and is applying for grants, includes Michele Brubaker, vice principal at Salpointe Catholic High School where Padilla’s youngest child, Athena, is a senior. Says Brubaker: “When she came to see me, I assumed she wanted to talk about her child. But no, it was about her ‘children’ in Zambia. I said, ‘Wait, go back, how does one come up with something so large?’ She shared with me her social justice work (which includes years of service in the Sanctuary movement for Central American refugees), and I saw that light in her eyes, that passion.” Brubaker, who acknowledges that she joined the board on a leap of faith, says the Zambian Children’s Fund is an attempt to put the notion of a “global community” into action.

Athena, a photography buff who will attend Northern Arizona University in the fall, wasn’t the least surprised when her mother told her she was going to build and operate an orphanage in Africa. “All my friends think it’s really cool what she’s doing. I’m really proud of her, and I’ll always be proud of her,” she says. “I can’t wait to visit her in Africa and take pictures.”

Padilla will return to Lusaka in April. By October of next year, she hopes to be living and working at the orphanage. She’ll spend a few years there before returning home to the States. “I hope to have grandchildren by then,” she says.

How will she keep from feeling overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of children who are homeless and orphaned? “I have to put blinders on,” she says. “I can’t help 100,000 children, but I can help these children. I want them to have what my four children had. I want to give them good meals, a safe place to live, the best education I can give them so that they can grow up to be  healthy, responsible adults.”

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