Yesterday, my wife, Racquel, was a guest speaker at a ceremony celebrating 30 years of educating women at Notre Dame High School in Sherman Oaks, California. 25 years ago, she was a member of the second class of girls to finish four years at what had been an all boys school. Organizers had invited her to share the story of how Mothers Fighting For Others got it’s start. If you know my wife, you know that she is not a fan of public speaking. And she is not a fan of speaking about herself.
The fact that she allowed me to edit her speech yesterday morning was a minor miracle and I had to force in a few parts of the MFFO history regarding herself that she conveniently left out. She’s not a fan of talking about herself. But I’m one of her fans. So today I’m sharing this here because she doesn’t have editing rights on my blog. I realize I may be more that a little bit biased, but this story is too good not to share. Here is the speech she delivered yesterday.
When I graduated twenty five years ago, I was so excited to simply get out of high school. I had turned down a track & field scholarship from the University of Redlands, just to prove a point to my mother. I wanted to prove my independence and I refused to apply to any other schools. I ended up running at Glendale Community college for two years, then off to CSUN for another 2 and half. All in all, due to the death of the step-father who raised me and my house burning completely to the ground in the Northridge earthquake, I had lost just about everything around me. I had learned so many life lessons in just a few short years. But I had no idea I had so much more to learn. I do wonder at times what would have happened if I had taken advantage of that scholarship. Where would I be and what would I be doing?
A few years later, I married my husband, Jeff, and we had a couple of kids, then another, and another, and then we adopted a couple of girls. We now have six children. I have four sons and two daughters – 19, 14, 13, 11, 9, and my youngest girl will quickly correct me and announce that she is 8 1/2. So in a very short period of time, my life was full, well, busy would be the proper word.
In 2006 I realized that busy wasn’t enough. I wanted to be more than just “Jeff’s wife” or someone’s Mom. Even though when I was a kid and adults would ask me, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” All I could think of was “A Mom.” I was certainly that, but for some reason it wasn’t enough for me, something was missing and I couldn’t figure out what it was.
I googled Volunteer Africa late one night in 2006, and less than a year later I was on a plane to Kenya. On that first trip in 2007 my entire world changed. I was assigned to an all girls orphanage called Saint Monica Childrens Home for Girls. I met 25 girls, ages ranging from 4 to14. And while they all touched my heart, one stood out.People like to say that their husbands or wives, boyfriends or girlfriends, are their soul mate. Mine is Winnie
One child made me smile the moment I laid eyes on her. Her name was Winnie and she was 9 years old and finishing 4th grade. She and her younger sister, Joyce, had been their since the orphanage opened in 2003. They were “true” orphans, both parents had died of HIV. All I knew was the moment that this little girl grabbed my hand and jumped up into my arms, I had found what I had been missing all along. It was her. People like to say that their husbands or wives, boyfriends or girlfriends, are their “soul mate.” Mine is Winnie.
My journey to take care of Winnie had a a very rough start. To sum it up in a few sentences. Adoption wasn’t an option and the director of the home was a liar and used the children’s disadvantages for his own financial gain. To ensure that Winnie and the other 24 children were taken care of, I would need to fly there myself, sometimes by myself, three times a year, to pay for school fees and to purchase the things they needed to go to boarding school. Because you see, going to school was a gift. Education was free up until grade 8 and if you didn’t have the financial means to continue past that, your education simply ended. And as you may be aware, being a girl in a third world country, your chances of having the opportunity to go to school are slim.
There are 66 million girls on this planet that don’t have that opportunity to go to school. 66 million, and I didn’t want Winnie and all the other girls to be another number in that statistic.
So I came home, started my charity called MFFO, Mothers Fighting For Others, or as a man on a plane once pointed out, we are the MOFFO’S. Our mission is simple, to educate girls and give them a loving home, just like their own mothers would have wanted for them.We started out in 2007 putting four girls in high school, 10 in 2008, 16 in 2009.
Then in 2010 our world crashed all around us.
We found out in Feb of that year, with a frantic phone call in the middle of the night from a volunteer on the ground in Nairobi, that the director had not only been abusing money but he had been abusing the girls as well. I don’t remember much about the 24 hours after that call. I remember feeling helpless. My husband tells me I spent much of the time in a fetal position on the floor of our kitchen, as he tried to explain to our still small children that “mom is ok.”
So, after that brief emotional breakdown, and admittedly a lot of vodka, I got up off the floor, and with the help of our amazing volunteers and board, a plan was made to get them away from their abuser. Our Kenyan partner was to take care of the logistics of the move, securing a location and guardianship, and MFFO would fund the entire operation. Six weeks and $45,000 raised laster, the girls were out of the house and their guardianship was handed over to us. It was, quite frankly, a little miracle that we were able to move so fast and do so much.
Now we were entirely financially responsible for 33 children, not just their education, but for EVERYTHING. And we continue today.
In fact, just over 48 hours ago, I was in Kenya again. I have no idea how many times I have been to Kenya, I have had to replace my passport a few times, and we now have a total of 44 children. Our eldest girl, Mary will be graduating from University in November, and we have three currently enrolled in college and six more just graduated High School in December.
I am in awe of these children.
You see, these girls don’t take their education for granted like I did. If they were to walk onto this beautiful campus, walk into these classrooms, study in our Science labs, the music room, play sports on these fields, I believe they would think they were the luckiest girls on the planet. And they would be.
What a gift we were given by our parents to attend such a fantastic high school. And today we get to celebrate this gift, 30 years of educating woman at Notre Dame. For thirty years, Notre Dame has given woman the opportunity for a better education, not just during high school, but as preparation for us to get into the University of our choice.I won’t let these children make the same mistakes that I did, and take for granted the amazing gift of education.
How blessed are we to be a product of that? How blessed are we to have had the opportunities given to us? I am truly thankful to my mother, who worked her butt off to give me that chance. I am thankful to Notre Dame for giving me the education I received, even though I fought it all the way. I was a selfish young girl who took all of those opportunities for granted. I was a self-centered young woman to turn down a free education. I was simply an ass.
I broke down on the plane, in row 33, late on Thursday night, reading letters from my girls who had just graduated high school saying. “Thank you mum, for giving us these opportunities. Thank you Mum for always being there for me. Thank you mum for all you have done for us, I promise to work hard in school so I can fulfill my dreams.
Then one of the girls, Ann, wrote, “I remember the first time you met me when I was in elementary school, you gave me hope and you ended up furthering my journey with me and now see the lady I am today.”
These are my girls, my daughters, and I can’t explain how my heart is full of love and pride. I won’t let them make the same mistakes that I did, and take for granted the amazing gift of education. I know there are so many here that took this opportunity and have done amazing things with it. We are surrounded by lawyers, writers, teachers, mothers. We were given a wonderful education here at Notre Dame and today we celebrate that. Today, I am proud to be one of you.
And even though I may not have made the best decisions back then, I have no regrets. I guess I fulfilled my own childhood dream, of being a mom. I just never would have guessed in my wildest dreams, that I would be a mother to 50 children on two continents. Thank you.