05/04/2012 07:01 am ET Updated Jul 04, 2012

Sylvia Allen: How One Woman Is Changing Africa One Village At A Time

Sylvia Allen had run a successful PR/marketing firm for 34 years when her life path radically changed. She was teaching a class called "How To Ask for Money" at the Center for Philanthropy and Fundraising when she was approached by a man who invited her on a humanitarian mission to Africa. "I got goose bumps at the time," said Allen, "because I'd actually studied for a Master of Arts in culture and policy with a focus on Africa."

So began a new chapter in Allen's life. At 66 years old, Allen traveled to Uganda and was deeply moved by its extreme poverty, health crises, and the plight of its children, many of whom lived without water, electricity, and an education. "I was just overwhelmed by these kids," she said. "They were like little sponges, taking everything in. The whole experience with them hit me like a two-by-four in my chest."

The mutual love between Allen and the Ugandan children with whom she came in contact prompted the head of the Mbiriizi Primary School to ask Allen if she'd become the school's grandmother. At the time, the school had 1,000 children, 250 of which were orphans due to the AIDS crisis. "I decided then and there that I had to make a difference in the lives of these people and teach them how to become entrepreneurs."

Allen went back to the States, started a nonprofit called Sylvia's Children, and became a combination foster/fairy grandmother and social activist. That was in 2004. Thus far, Allen has raised more than $600,000. With those resources and her seemingly boundless energy Allen, now 75, has helped to foster an entrepreneurial infrastructure and grassroots sustainable economy in the village of Mbiriizi. She incorporated a chicken farm ("So that every child gets at least one egg a day," Allen said), a corn-milling business, a fair-trade coffee business, a medical clinic, a uniform sewing trade, and an arts and crafts cooperative. She also worked with residents to build a fully equipped school, and brought over dentists, nurses and doctors to serve the community.

The recipient of numerous awards, including Outstanding Philanthropist of the Year, Allen herself grew up as a hard-working child. When she was 12 years old and wanted a cashmere sweater, her mother, strapped for cash, told her to get a job. So the young Allen went out and sold greeting cards door-to-door and made enough money to buy herself that coveted sweater -- and earn a few extra dollars in the process. "This was back in the 1940s, mind you, said Allen. "I've always been a starter."

Allen's resilience and self-reliance have served her well over the years. "If you'd have told me 10 years ago that this is what I'd be doing, I would have said, 'Are you kidding me?' I'm just a little speck on this earth. But if I can just make a difference in the lives of a few thousand children, that's huge." On her tenacity and life-long reinvention (Allen is also restoring the historic Aitkin Opera House in Minnesota), Allen is quick to offer two pieces of advice: "Number one: never, ever accept what other people think of you. Number two: never, ever underestimate your ability to change."

Check out photos of Allen and her work in Uganda, and a video explaining "Sylvia's Children" below.

Sylvia Allen


Sylvia Allen