I am honored and humbled to be a White House Champion of Change. I arrived in the United States as an Ethiopian immigrant at the age of 17 and later became a naturalized U.S. citizen. Now I work as a patent examiner for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. Still, one of my most important accomplishments is serving as the president of a dynamic non-profit organization called Wegene Ethiopian Foundation (WEF), which I founded with the help of my friends and family members in the year 2000.
I am extremely grateful for the security, opportunity for education, and better life my adoptive country, the United States, has provided me and my family. I believe it is my privilege and duty to give back to both my birth country and the U.S. in any way I can. As a result, it is especially rewarding to be part of a foundation that provides fundamental change to less fortunate families sustaining themselves at the price of one cup of coffee per day and to make a difference for these families and their communities. This is really the finest sort of empowerment, where we all can be partners and the ownership belongs to our partners who benefit from the program. As a partner of Wegene, I have the opportunity to make a difference at a personal level. This offers me fulfillment and civic satisfaction beyond imagination. Wegene’s vision and strategy is simple because the resources are deliverable and the overhead cost is near to nothing. Additionally, almost everyone involved is donating their time, money, and contacts in kind to this noble work.
Through a sustainable manner, Wegene’s mission is to improve the everyday lives of less fortunate and disadvantaged children and their families in Ethiopia. This mission is based on the philosophy that if hardworking, destitute families are given the opportunity, tools, and resources to improve their lives, they will have a stepping stone to emerge from the poverty cycle and give their children better educational opportunities in order to lead happier, healthier lives. Wegene creates opportunities for families to become self-sufficient through vocational training and small start-up grants.
The overall success of the foundation is primarily reflected in the long-term successes of the families and children it supports. Wegene has supported 28 families (of which 8 families are now self-sufficient) and enrolled over 75 homeless children in schools as a result of local fundraisers, including sales of baked goods, handmade clay figurines, jewelry, crafts, doll designs, and my personal poetry books. Wegene has also successfully recruited hundreds of members to the foundation who pay dues of $10 per month.
All Wegene board members are volunteers who are highly dedicated to the foundation’s mission. A significant portion of the foundation’s success can be attributed to their commitment and hard work. With various educational and professional backgrounds, each board member has been using his or her expertise in marketing, fundraising, management, etc., to contribute to the development and growth of the foundation. These board members have played an essential role in mobilizing Ethiopians in the Diaspora to give back to the homeland. The children of the board members have also established a sub-group called The Wegene Kids Club. The club raises funds through bake sales, movie nights, and crafting. The club also holds different activities to enhance the awareness of the Ethiopian American youth living in the U.S. In addition to helping the disadvantaged families in Ethiopia, the Wegene Kids Club has been involved in feeding and distributing clothing to the homeless in the Washington, D. C. area for the past 3 years.
Visiting a remote village, in Jimma area, of Ethiopia in 2006, I noticed that the only local school had been ruined and abandoned, forcing the area’s children to walk two hours each way to the nearest school. In response, I spearheaded a project to build an elementary school for the area, raising money by running the 2007 Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, D. C. Despite the fact that I was an amateur runner with a demanding schedule of work and raising three children, I joined a boot camp to get in shape, woke up at 5 a.m., and trained daily for 40 weeks. I was able to raise enough money to get the foundation of the school constructed. My efforts inspired others to participate in the 2007 and 2010 Marine Corps Marathon. My commitment to finishing the school continued by organizing other fund raising activities such as soliciting for raffle items, holding fundraiser dinners and Sponsor a Desk programs. Even though it took over four years, we were able to raise enough money to make the school building dream a reality. On February 26, 2011, the elementary school was inaugurated and presented to the local people to run and manage it.
I see our world as a generous place where we truly reach out to others as we move through life. I strongly believe that we each have a humanitarian equity with which we can make a difference. It does not matter if our contribution is large or small; doing what we can to positively affect the life of a single person will provide us with immense gratification. I think our legacy should be how much we gave not how much we made. Wegene poses the challenge of changing our hearts and lives through service by giving to and caring for our fellow neighbors of the world and I am fortunate to be a part of its success.
Nini Legesse is the president of a dynamic non-profit organization called Wegene Ethiopian Foundation (WEF) which she founded with the help of her friends and family members in the year 2000.