RIPON, CALIFORNIA -- Poverty and illiteracy are rife in Ethiopia, but in the little town of Nekemte, 120 children are receiving the basic nutrition and education they need to help break that cycle. A plaque on the wall of their schoolroom honors the people who have made this opportunity possible: the men and women of the Ripon Church of Christ.
The Ethiopian government provides free public education for its students, offering a first through fourth grade roughly equivalent to elementary school in the United States. The government does not provide a free "kindergarten" however, meaning families must pay for the two-year stage that provides necessary fundamentals. Children who do not receive this kindergarten education find it almost impossible to succeed in first grade, and in a land where people struggle to feed themselves, the additional cost of this important preparatory phase makes education an impossible dream for most.
Over the years, the Ripon congregation of the Church of Christ has donated tens of thousands of dollars to build a facility in Nekemte that provides free kindergarten and a daily meal for one hundred regular children and twenty deaf children a year. For many of their students, the meal is the only food they receive, but for all of them, the school is their key to a hopeful future. The compound in Nekemte was built and is maintained exclusively with funds from the Ripon Church of Christ, and minister Tom Steed was pleased to make a visit there this past October to meet the director, staff and students face to face.
According to Steed, congregations of the Church of Christ have been involved with helping Ethiopian communities for the past forty years. In a nation where several millions of people are rendered deaf by disease, one of their first priorities was to set up schools to educate deaf children, once considered lost causes in their homeland. The Nekemte facility teaches deaf children to read, write and use sign language, and they work with the government to place deaf alumni in jobs.
Every little bit of the congregation's donations help, too, because in Ethiopia, a little bit goes a long way. "How much do you think it costs to maintain the facilities?" Tom Steed asked. "Three hundred dollars a month. It costs three hundred dollars a month to teach and feed the students, plus pay the staff of five teachers and two custodial helpers. That's a car payment."
Pooling resources with other congregations, the Ripon Church of Christ has also helped donate the funds to purchase a truck with a well-drilling rig. That project has resulted in fresh water for 150,000 people so far. The Nekemte compound also has a Ministry School for adult men. Two priorities of that curriculum are how to preach from the Bible and how to use, set up and teach other people about drip irrigation. "Most of the men are from agrarian communities," Steed said. "They can go back and show people in their community how to use what water they do have more efficiently. We've seen an increase in food production, sometimes even enough that they have some left over to sell."
Steed is proud of the good relationship their congregation has with the local government, and of the fact that the Nekemte school is considered on of the finest kindergartens in the region. But moreover, he is proud of the dramatic way that even a small community acting upon their beliefs can have a big impact on people in need.
"We are making a difference in their daily lives and bringing them the Gospel," Steed said. "We get asked, 'why do you do this?' And we tell them 'it is what love requires us to do for you'."
This article first appeared in the Manteca (Calif.) Bulletin.