In the early 1990s, after I earned my master’s degree at the Cleveland Institute of Music, I did what I always wanted to do: I moved east to NYC to become a freelance musician. Wide-eyed and eager, I called up my old college friends and summer music camp buddies to ask for advice on how to break into the music scene in New York. It was a slow process, but I started playing in a few regional orchestras, touring to Japan in the summers, and subbing here and there on Broadway. Fast forward 10 years: I was running around NYC with my cello on my back, happy to be piecing together a living in the greatest city in the world. I got married, and in 2006 we had our first child. When we decided to try for child #2, we opted to adopt internationally.
In 2009, my husband and I began our adoption process for a little girl from East Africa. Always interested in the culture and rich history of this country, we settled on Ethiopia after researching all the sub-Saharan African countries that had international adoption programs. The process lasted about two years, and the wait during those last five months was particularly grueling. All of our paperwork had cleared and our daughter was legally ours. We were just waiting – like all the other families in the process of adopting from Ethiopia – for the U.S. embassy to sign off for our child to legally leave the country. So in 2011, after feeling like I couldn’t wait patiently any longer, I took a leave from the musical “Spiderman” and flew out to Ethiopia to be there for my child. I rented an apartment in Addis Ababa with my friend Carrie, who was also in the process of adoption, and we lived there with our daughters.
While living in Addis, I visited several state-run orphanages and got to know the directors. I realized that educational programs and quality-of-life improvements could be made without costing a fortune. I started a music program in the Kolfe Boys Orphanage. A music teacher came twice a week to teach piano, bass and guitar to any boys who were interested in learning. Carrie and I teamed up to make some repairs and upgrades in the Kechene Girls Orphanage. We asked our friends back home to chip in $30 each to help out. A few days later, we were able to replace 250 moldy foam remnants the girls were sleeping on for actual mattresses and bed linens. But there was something more urgent: a section of the outer stone wall around the orphanage was compromised, which allowed entrance into the compound. Sexual predators were coming in at night to hassle the girls. We repaired that to secure their safety, and our friends back home were more than happy to contribute a few dollars each for that repair. It was then that we realized if many people each give a little, we could collectively make a big difference.
After my daughter’s embassy paperwork cleared and we were finally united as a family back in the states, my friend Carrie and I spoke on the phone. We decided to continue programs in Ethiopia since the country was now part of our heritage and history. That is a gift our daughters gave to us. We filed for nonprofit status and selected a name: the Lelt Foundation. Lelt means “princess” in Amharic, the native language of Ethiopia. It was the name of a little girl we met in Kechene orphanage who went missing before we were able to repair the compound wall. We named our charity after her.
While we waited for our nonprofit status to become official, we put together a board of directors and researched the best way to make the biggest impact in Ethiopia. Creating programs in government-run orphanages could often be a bureaucratic mess. We wanted to develop our own programs and move away from dependency assistance. That is when we developed a strategy that combines three elements of aid: nutrition, education and job creation. Those three pieces need to lock together to provide a permanent solution to cyclical poverty. We focused on severely malnourished families in Kara Kore, an impoverished neighborhood on the outskirts of Addis Ababa. Through a partnership with the family division of the Ethiopian government, our directors formed a list of the neediest children in Kara Kore based on census lists. Our foundation created a child sponsorship program, which enables American donors to contribute a small amount every month to provide a daily nutritious meal, after school tutoring, trauma counseling, and essentials (like clothing, school uniform and soap) to help that child thrive. We also offer music classes four times a week with both traditional Ethiopian music and conventional music teachers to all of the children in our program. The child’s family gets monthly food rations so they are eating at home. Their parents are given priority to join our business creation program, which is a training program that provides business and money management seminars to prepare the families to start their own small business. Once the parent is trained and ready to launch, our foundation provides a micro-loan to help with start-up costs. Parents in our program have created their own success stories by running coffee kiosks, bread-baking businesses, laundry services and vegetable wholesale stands at the local market. We also offer adult education classes for the women in our community who were previously forced to leave school early to work or get married. Some of the women who have learned to read and write in this program have been able to secure reliable jobs in the government sector.
It’s been an amazing ride running this nonprofit organization in a country halfway across the world. I’ve had to jump through hoops to keep up. For several years, I’d take nonprofit management classes online, working on my classwork when I got home from playing a show, being careful not to wake my sleeping kids in the next room. It is often crazy busy, but it’s time well spent. There are so many success stories that fuel me. One in particular that resonates with me is the story about Yayesh. I met this 10-year old girl in 2012. She was hunched forward, frail, and too afraid to speak. Everything was said in a whisper-soft voice. Our Ethiopian directors told me she was being severely abused at home. Yayesh had been pulled out of school so much through her first five years of education that she couldn’t read or write. But today, she is happy, healthy and vibrant. Always smiling. A bit of a rascal. She now lives in Lelt’s Girls’ House, which is a home for girls who were abused or abandoned. She takes taekwando classes and piano lessons every week to build her confidence and explore her talents. She attends one of the best private schools in Kara Kore, and she ranks number two in the entire school. Four years ago, she couldn’t read or write. She wants to be a doctor when she grows up. I believe she will.
If you would have told me 10 years ago that I would be running a nonprofit organization in Ethiopia that feeds 2,000 people a day, I would have thought you were crazy. There was nothing that could have prepared me for this path in life. And I’ve learned so much about poverty, race, inequality and my own abilities through the process. But starting this charity happened organically, at just the right time, and I have been extremely fortunate to have had the support and contribution of many, many musicians who I am proud to call my friends and co-workers. I love being a NYC freelancer, playing in different orchestras and on different recordings, and seeing and playing with people I admire and adore on a rotating basis. I feel incredibly fortunate to be a Broadway musician, playing a fantastic score every night at “Hamilton.” I am grateful that the career I love allows me the time and flexibility to run the nonprofit organization that connects us Americans with my extended Ethiopian family. There is an Ethiopian proverb that I am especially fond of: Dir biyaber anbessa yasser, which translates loosely to “Spider webs joined together can catch a lion.” Ultimately, we are all in this world together. And working together brings strength and resilience to our community.
Anja Wood, a member of Local 802 since 1997, plays in the “Hamilton” orchestra. The Lelt Foundation is in need of used laptops and used cell phones to assist the staff and students in Ethiopia, where she is returning soon for a visit. If you have donations or questions, please contact Anja at Anja@LeltFoundation.org.