03/05/2014 04:17 pm ET Updated May 05, 2014

How One Orphan Went From Famine to Harvard

Every child deserves to grow up in a loving home. Unfortunately, there are more than 151 million orphaned children living without the love and support needed to grow up to be independent adults.

I hear stories about these children every day, and it pains me to see how much needs to be done to address this very pressing issue. But along with these heartbreaking stories, I also hear about children who overcame adversity to achieve their dreams.

This month while visiting our villages in Ethiopia I got to hear these stories firsthand. I met amazing children and their SOS Mothers. One particular person I was very interested in meeting and speaking to was the SOS Mother of an SOS graduate I had met in the states over a year ago.

The first SOS alum I ever met, Gebre, grew up in Mekelle, Ethiopia. I was working at SOS Children's Villages -- USA for just one month when I met him. And while I knew how deeply our work supports abandoned children and under-resourced communities, hearing Gebre's story helped me understand first hand just how much our work transforms lives for the better.

Gebre was only three months old when he lost both of his parents to a famine that claimed nearly a million lives, and orphaned children in Ethiopia. Luckily, baby Gebre found a new family with his SOS Mother and siblings. Gebre's SOS Mother raised him with love, respect, security and community -- the intangibles that make up a family.

The stability of unconditional love allowed Gebre to thrive. He was given the opportunity to study at the SOS Hermann Gmeiner International College Tema in Ghana, and later earned a full scholarship to study mathematics at Harvard University. Now 29 years old, Gebre works in Finance in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

"I can't imagine what my life would have been like if I was not taken into the arms of my SOS mother," he told me. "I am daily humbled and grateful for my SOS experience."

Gebre shows his gratitude for his SOS family by sponsoring a little girl in the same village where he was raised. He knows his contribution allows another child to build the close-knit family bonds he built in Mekelle. And those bonds don't end when a child leaves the SOS home.

Even after leaving the village in Mekelle for Massachusetts, Gebre's ties to his SOS family remain strong.

"A highlight of my life was having my SOS mother attend my graduation from Harvard," Gebre says. "She is my mother in every way and we still talk regularly."

I finally got the chance to meet and thank Medhin, Gebre's SOS Mother, for being there for Gebre when he needed love and support the most. Medhin explained to me that when she got Gebre, he was so malnourished they were not sure he was going to live. He did, and became a healthy, happy, curious young boy. I asked her when she knew he was so smart and she said "by kindergarten."

Medhin had 21 children under her care that year, which is way beyond the SOS norms, but the drought was so severe and there were so many orphaned children that the SOS Village in Mekelle was stretched beyond capacity. Medhin has since retired from SOS and has her own, biological family. But she was able to share photos with me of her first family of children with SOS and photos of young Gebre, just like any proud mother.