Lending a hand a world away

Mary Ellen Carter’s connection to the African nation of Malawi started with a visit in 2006 and a few boxes of supplies.

Today, she is the founder of Direct Connections to Africa with a record of having built two educational centers, three preschools and an Internet cafe and sponsored more than 300 students.

And those are just a few of her accomplishments.

“It was not a thing I ever thought I would be doing,” Carter said, adding that the nonprofit founded in 2008 just “kind of evolved.”

The Laguna Beach resident visited the country with her husband, U.S. District Judge David Carter, who went to teach Malawian judges how to stop money laundering.

As her husband worked, Carter drove to rural villages and handed out school supplies and over-the-counter medication. That’s when she made a connection that blossomed into the nonprofit.

“I was just captivated by a woman’s story,” Carter said. “She wanted to start a preschool.”

Carter started sending boxes of school supplies to the teacher.

Now with educational facilties constructed and 35 teachers trained, Carter’s plans have expanded.

Her goal, in line with the organization’s namesake, is to make improvements by directly connecting with the villages in the Mangochi district of Malawi.

“It’s kind of like a project,” she said. “Can you get a village to be self-sufficient when you directly connect in with them?”

So far, Carter says the answer is yes.

Carter runs the organization from her house with the help of volunteers in order to keep costs low. About 5% of donations go toward those costs, with the remaining 95% going to Africa, she says.

The nonprofit is a testament to the notion that it does not take a giant organization or tons of money to make a difference, she said.

Direct Connections not only works to build infrastructure but provides financial support to high school and college students. Donors pay the students’ $300-a-year school costs and, in turn, receive letters and updates from the youths.

“We want them to be self-sufficient,” Carter said. “So that’s why they have to give back, and the way they give back is to write letters.”

The connection between the students and their sponsors is to ensure that donors can “see exactly where (their) money is going.”

With more than 300 high school and 30 college students sponsored over the past five years, Carter said she is pleased with the progress.

Traci Kaas of Huntington Beach has been donating to Direct Connections since 2010. She supports a female and male student, Chisomo and Japhet, and her husband supports two others.

Kaas and her husband not only sponsor the cost of schooling but send supplies and additional funds throughout the year. And in turn, they receive letters from the students, which they respond to with letters of their own describing life in the United States.

“In these letters you can see the struggles these families have and how any money they have is to put food on the table and some type of a roof over their head,” Kaas wrote in an email.

She added that the letters also show how each student “really wants to attend school and just how much they enjoy the opportunity to learn.”

One student sponsored by the nonprofit was supported through computer college and now, with funding from Direct Connections, is opening a computer repair shop.

Carter, a former career counselor, is hoping the business funding will teach self-sufficiency. Applicants must submit a business plan backed by research.

The theme of self-sufficiency will continue with a long list of projects slated for the organization’s sixth year.

Carter is working with three students from the UC Irvine School of Medicine who have developed a program to educate healthcare workers at local clinics.

The students — David Daar, Vivian Ogueli and Justin Yanuck — created online virtual educational modules that they loaded on iPads to help clinic workers. The lessons are specifically designed for the obstetrics and women’s clinic.

“Rather than give our own resources and personnel, we want to provide adjunct training to the very capable healthcare workers in Malawi to care for their community on their own,” Daar wrote in an email.

The modules will focus on “practical knowledge,” and the iPads are loaded with applications that the students use in clinics at UCI.

The goal is not only to train healthcare workers at one clinic, but enable them to take the iPads to neighboring villages and train other workers.

Carter also plans to build basketball and volleyball courts, start an accounting scholarship and send more than 400 boxes of supplies this year.

The projects speak not only to what the villages need but also how a donor wants to help.

With each project, Carter works to tailor a plan specific to each donor. Some sponsor classrooms by sending supplies, others sponsor students and some donate directly to projects.

One project for this year came from the daughter of a firefighter. In memory of her father, she donated money to build a well in a village where clean water is otherwise 20 miles away.

Carter visits Malawi, “the warm heart of Africa,” each year to stay updated on the projects and teach a career counseling class.

She said the work she does not only positively transforms the villages but herself as well.

“I have seen it change,” she said. “I have seen us move forward, and I think the villages have also seen a lot of change, and I think it’s basically because we directly give to them.”

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