03/21/2014 05:17 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Sisyphean Task of Building Families

In early 2011, I visited the most amazing place -- a children's village in Karatu, a remote area of Tanzania, where orphaned children were living, laughing, playing, learning, and creating families. This was after months of physically and emotionally exhausting orphanage work, with children who were slated to go to boarding school at best once they aged out of the orphanage at age 5. I'm not sure I've ever been so happy to be surrounded by thriving, healthy kids and simultaneously so terribly sad to realize that even this was so far out of reach for the children I love. I saw the faces of the one year old girl and three year old boy I'd fallen in love with, and my heart clenched at the thought of them leaving a warm and loving place, albeit an orphanage, and ending up alone and scared in a boarding school bed, isolated from everyone they had ever loved. I remember tearing up, thinking how desperately I wanted to be able to give this to our children, how frustrated and helpless I felt in the face of that need and my inability to help. It literally took my breath away.


Three years later, a lot has changed. I'm living in Tanzania with my husband, and that one year old baby is our silly and sassy four year old daughter, and that quiet boy is our sweet, smart, funny six year old son. For the last year I've been on the ground running our nonprofit, working with the orphanage and expanding our outreach program to keep kids in families whenever we can. That visit to Karatu inspired us and showed us what was possible, and we've been working towards the goal of creating a family-style children's village ever since, to give the other amazing kids we work with the closest thing to a family we can provide.

But until very recently, the village seemed like a far off dream -- we had bought our land and were steadily raising money, bit by bit, to begin construction, but it was years away at best. Meanwhile the children I had seen enter the orphanage as babies, literally hours after their mothers had passed away in labor, were starting pre-school. The one and two year olds whose diapers I had changed in 2010 were getting ever closer to that 5 year old boundary, where they'd have to leave the orphanage and start over somewhere new. The clock was ticking and I had no idea how to give these children what they desperately needed, families -- or the closest substitute we can create.


That was before we met the Shazi Visram, her family and her company Happy Family Brands. The last weeks have been a real whirlwind -- thanks to their incredible vision and kindness, we will soon be able to begin work on the Happy Family Children's Village, in honor and memory of Shazi's father, Amir Visram, a Tanzanian native who brought his family to America for a chance at a better life. The family has chosen this route to honor Shazi's late father, in memory of his dedication to the orphaned and vulnerable children of Tanzania. Now, we are fully funded for phase one of construction, which will eventually be sufficient to house up to 40 orphaned children!


Obviously, the main beneficiaries of all of this are the children -- but I don't think words can possibly begin to say how this gift has changed my life as well. I no longer lie awake at nights worrying about what will happen to our kids. I have been able to let go of some of the terrible guilt of not being able to adopt them all, knowing that they will be loved and cared for, and stay in close contact with the mamas who have adored them since they were babies. I have finally been able to relax a tiny bit, working 40-50 hours a week instead of my prior 60+, knowing that we are no longer alone in creating these children's future. This partnership has been a gift in every sense of the word -- financial, yes, but also emotional. This is not just the construction of some houses -- we are building families and a future for children who didn't have either. As I tiptoe in at night to kiss my own babies on the cheek, I have to pinch myself to remember that this is not just a beautiful dream. All of our small efforts with great love, like Mother Theresa says in the quote that our nonprofit's name is based on, have come together and created something far bigger than any of us could have imagined alone. And I am so, so grateful.