There is no word for what Tiffany Jones has done over her last four summers. Literally, no word.
Since 2009, Jones, a social worker at Goodwin Elementary School in Cicero, has spent five to eight weeks of her summer vacations in Ethiopia, helping care for HIV-positive children.
The word "volunteer" is not part of the Amharic language, Jones explains. About the closest one can get, she says, is bego fekadegna, which means "willing generous person."
Another word that is sometimes heard is ferengi, which Jones says means "foreigner," or perhaps "white person." That's what random strangers will call out on the streets, she explains.
"As for the kids (at one of the places she volunteers), I'm just Tiffany, except for one little boy my first summer. He was walking home with his big sisters and I was walking back to my hotel and I hear him yelling, 'My ferengi! My ferengi!' It was adorable."
Raised in Downers Grove, Jones, 37, got her undergraduate degree at Bradley University, a master's in social work at the University of Illinois at Chicago and a second master's in educational leadership at Concordia University in River Forest. She started her social work in 1999 and came to Goodwin in 2000, working with children from age 3 to grade 6.
In Ethiopia, she splits her time between two orphanages. The first is AHOPE (ahopeforchildren.org), a Virginia-based charity that has been serving Ethiopia's HIV-infected children for 10 years. The second is Lola Children's Home (lolachildrensfund.org), a smaller operation founded in 2010 by Abebe Fantahun, who himself was orphaned as a child.
"I do it by need. Last summer AHOPE planned to move all the teenagers to transition homes," Jones says. "So I did daily cooking classes for kids 15, 16, 17 — kids who were going to transition to semi-independent living. This summer I spent most of my time with Lola."
On her most recent visit, she brought funds for hot-water tanks, lighting and furniture. But a bigger goal was to find schools — good schools — for the Lola students. (Except for kindergarten students, children attend outside schools.) She spent much of her time checking out prospective schools. Jones says she did get the students into good schools — another victory for this bego fekadegna.
Q: How did this get started? Was there one event that moved you to do this?
A: I love to travel. I'd been to several places in Europe, I had studied abroad as an undergraduate. I wanted to hit all seven continents, but I also thought my first trip to Africa should be with a purpose. A friend had heard about an orphanage (run by AHOPE) where all the kids were HIV-positive. ... I decided to hold a wine-tasting fundraiser with a girlfriend to raise money to support two students for a year. We had a surprisingly good turnout at this great little wine shop in Roscoe Village and raised enough for two yearlong sponsorships. I sent in my money and started getting quarterly updates about my sponsor children. ... In one of the updates, (it) said, in addition to financial support and supplies, they were in need of in-country volunteers, the stipulations being you had to spend at least six weeks in-country, and they preferred teachers, social workers and nurses. Well, I'm a teacher, I'm a social worker and I'm off all summer.
Q: What is a typical day like?
A: With both organizations, essentially you need to come with ... lessons, activities, field trips — we took the older kids to the mountains, hiking. I start around 9 a.m. I'll usually pick one or two students whom I'm going to work with on their language skills. English is a second language there, and everything in high school and college is in English, so if they don't master it by the time they get to high school they will have problems. We have lunch together. Then there's the nap/coffee hour. At that point I do some editing for Abebe because his English isn't that good. I did a brochure for new staffers; I do reports that he has to send to the government. This summer I spent a lot of time interviewing schools. The nurses and I would take some of the kids back to their house to do some cooking and to show them what family life was like. Sometimes we take kids to play soccer.
Q: Talk about the kids. All HIV, right? What is the age range?
A: Every single child at AHOPE is HIV-positive. About half of the Lola kids are HIV-positive and about half simply are affected by a family member with HIV or who has passed from AIDS. At AHOPE, they can take newborns from the hospital, though usually the youngest is about 12 to 18 months, and it is supposed to go to 18. ... At Lola, the kids right now are 15 months to 12 years, give or take. It's hard to know sometimes. They don't celebrate birthdays.
Q: And do they all get treatment and health care?
A: Most of the children at Lola who are HIV are on ARVs (antiretroviral drugs). They have regular trips to the doctor. One thing we put in place this year was regular health checks. Then you work with a local dairy to get them fresh milk every day: two cups each, which is unheard of in Ethiopia. We wanted to put in place things that, if we can't do the $2,000 to fly over there, these things would still be there. That's why we worked on getting schooling set up, the best school we could find. That's why we worked with the dairy. These are the two biggest things (the kids need): health and education.
Q: When AHOPE started this, was adoption an option, or was it more about hospice care for the children?
A: It was a hospice. At the time, the U.S. didn't allow HIV adoptions. AHOPE was told that with every child they brought in, they had to have enough money to bury them. When they got ARVs, everything changed. Adoptions started about six years ago. But they're still small numbers — Ethiopia slowed it down because there was some fraud in the program.
Q: Do you find many similarities, or differences, between them and your students here?
A: All their clothes are (donated) from the states. So you look at them and they're dressed like my students (at Goodwin). And they love sunglasses. Kids are kids. Most of the games we play — Uno, duck duck goose, musical chairs — it's like my kindergartners here.
Q: Have you been able to turn your experiences into lessons for the kids here?
A: My first year, we had a penny drive at Goodwin. We used that to support a children's library in Ethiopia. ... I wanted them to do some small piece where they felt they were helping. I'll bring back pictures, "This is what you did." It's nice to get them involved so they know there are things they can do. I have photos on my bulletin board of all the kids (in Ethiopia). Every year kids ask, "Are you going back?" And then, "When I grow up, can I come with?"
Q: Do you stay in touch?
A: Everybody in the world has Facebook. Abebe sends us photos: the kids on the first day of school, and two days ago was their New Year's Day — big celebration, special clothes.
Q: What do the kids there say to you?
A: The bigger kids, how they're doing in school, if a volunteer came back, what they need. The younger ones, I'll send money for a dinner or something, and it'll be "Is Tiffany coming?"
Q: Could the 15-year-old Tiffany Jones ever have imagined she'd be doing this?
A: At 15, yes. At 25, no. At 15, I was a tree-hugger. I went to a workshop in D.C., and I was going to fix the world. We met senators, people from the World Wildlife Fund. The teacher who organized this was Alan Hoffman, a biology teacher and sponsor of the outdoor/environmental club at Downers Grove North High School. (He was) probably one of the main reasons I went into education. "Hoffer" was the best teacher, and I still keep in touch with him. ... So at 15, yeah. Save the world. But at 25, I was working on master's No. 2, so probably not.
Follow the progress of Jones' kids in Ethiopia on her blog, takeactionforafrica.wordpress.com.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times