How Two Canadian Girls Inspired a Movement for an Orphanage in the Congo

Prequal is committed to making an impact in the communities where we live and work. We are also committed to sharing our platform to tell stories of others that are doing the same. This is one of those stories. 

It began (at least the Canadian side of things) on a school bus.

Two friends, Elizabeth Rochon and Madeline Hiebert, were on their way to school one frigid morning in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. They were both nine years old at the time.

Elizabeth (Lizzie) and Madeline (Maddie) had been at church that weekend where they learned about the Mukanzo Orphanage in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). A Congolese-Canadian church member, Odette Mukole (Madame Odette), founded the orphanage in 2011 in Tshikapa, DRC, and was single-handedly supporting the orphanage with the salary she earned in her job in Winnipeg. Madame Odette was struggling to keep up with the needs of some 35 orphaned Congolese children. Lizzie and Maddie wanted to help.

Their initial plan was to set up a lemonade stand and raise $75, which the girls did within a few days. This had been fun and educational for both of them, but, even at their young age, they also knew that the need far exceeded the amount the girls raised, so they hatched a plan for a fundraising wheel-a-thon in their community. With the help of both their parents, the girls held the first Mukanzo Orphanage Wheel-a-thon in Winnipeg in June of 2014. The Wheel-a-thon became an annual event and to date, has raised $62,000 for the Mukanzo Orphanage, a project managed by the Canadian charitable organization Accountable Development Works.

The first items their efforts produced for the orphanage were small but impactful: school fees, paper and pencils, and mosquito nets. You might not imagine this to be much but consider that the kids did not previously have these items. They weren’t able to attend school and were vulnerable to mosquito-transmitted disease like malaria or Dengue fever. As a result of the fundraising, soon the orphanage was able to purchase bunk beds, which also made an enormous difference in daily life.

Food was their next hurdle. The children weren’t eating every day, and neither were they getting breakfast, so they were leaving for school on empty stomachs. Now the children get one meal a day without fail and often have breakfast before leaving the orphanage in the morning.

Soon the fundraising efforts were able to provide a new roof, a paint job, and a property wall, which was a long time coming. The yard was wide open and vulnerable to passersby who helped themselves to things belonging to the orphanage, so you can imagine what a difference the wall made. Later they were able to purchase an adjacent plot of land, which is now being used as a vegetable garden. They added showers, a latrine to replace the only outhouse, running water and a bread oven. They have even begun selling the bread to generate extra operating funds.

Talking to Lizzie and Maddie is a real pleasure. They are completely switched-on teenagers with many stories to tell about the kids at the orphanage, particularly the profound changes they’ve witnessed in them.

“One girl came to Mukanzo only wanting to go to school,” says Lizzie, “That’s all she wanted. Now she is at the top of her class and preparing to go to university someday.”

When asked to share the most profound change they’ve witness in the orphanage’s children, Lizzie and Maddie agree. “The one thing they now have that they didn’t have before is hope,” says Maddie, “They grow and improve as the years go by because they can now see better things on the horizon.”

“It definitely puts my own struggles in perspective,” says Lizzie with a laugh, “I don’t feel sorry for myself when the Wi-fi goes down anymore. This experience has definitely taught me gratitude.”

During the interview, when Lizzie shares this statement, Maddie is quick to add, “Ignorance is no longer an option. I know now how fortunate we are and how much help is needed, not just in the Congo, but in many places around the world.”

When asked to advise other young people in similar endeavors, Lizzie and Maddie provide the following: “Find others with a passion for making a difference,” they suggest, “If you’re really lucky your parents will join the effort.”

The moms: Elizabeth Schellenberg and Heather Rochon were instrumental in making this happen. They supported their daughters every step of the way and have become members of the board, along with their husbands, the girls’ dads, too, who make the Wheel-a-thon possible every year, helping them obtain sponsors and getting people involved.

“At Mukanzo, we have 37 residents and a waiting list of about 200 children,” explains Maddie’s mom, Elizabeth. “We have recently partnered with Days for Girls, a global non-profit organization providing sustainable feminine hygiene solutions to girls and women around the world with no access to disposable supplies. They make what they call DfG kits, which contain a washable, long-lasting pad. We are also hoping to equip the girls to sew the kits sometime in the future, which could provide another source of income.”

The kits make an enormous difference for adolescent girls in the Congo and around the world. Without them, girls routinely miss school and even skip meals when the rest of the group is together in the dining room. The DfG kits make it so they don’t have to miss any classes or time with friends. Days for Girls also provides menstrual hygiene education, which is desperately needed, along with reproductive health education.

“Many of the girls don’t know how a woman gets pregnant,” explains Elizabeth, “So they are extremely vulnerable to sexual predators and teen pregnancy. Days for Girls is working to change that.”

The Mukanzo Orphanage and the efforts of Lizzie and Maddie with the annual Wheel-a-thon offer more than an inspiring blog post: the story reveals how children can become leaders in a more compassionate age, something we have seen before with their generation. It stands to reason that they would get involved. Their world is on fire and they are the ones who will pay the price and feel the greatest pain. Greta Thunberg and the kids who took on the gun freedom lobbyists in Parkland, Florida stand as a testament to the strength of their voices.  Their work in making the world a better place doesn’t have to wait until they graduate from college. In fact, it can be an integral step on their path to adulthood and global citizenship. As Lizzie tells us, supportive parents make an enormous difference.

“We couldn’t have done it without our parents,” says Lizzie, which can’t help but reveal one of the many fruits of these labors; two teenaged girls enjoying the freedom, wealth and opportunity of life in a developed nation grew into generous and accountable young citizens. They both turn 18 next year, and can’t hang out together, except online. They do their classes at home as the world awaits the end of the COVID-19 pandemic. As long as they can be sure of their safety there, they are both planning to visit the Congo after they graduate from high school. They look forward to meeting all the orphans and learning what more they can do in the Congo and elsewhere to make a difference.

When asked what Mukanzo Orphanage most needs at this moment, Elizabeth explains that one-time donations are always welcome, and the team makes every effort to spread them across various operating expenses. Most needed are organizations and individuals who commit to helping for the long-term, which allows the team to plan for upgrades to the buildings, expand into new areas and make improvements to the property.

For their work on behalf of Mukanzo Orphanage, Lizzie and Maddie both received the Governor General Caring Canadian Award in 2015. This story has been published on The Prequal because we strongly believe in empowering girls and women around the world. Lizzie and Maddie were teens when they turned $75 into $62,000, so there is no telling what they and other girls can do throughout their lives if given the support and opportunity.

If you would like to help Mukanzo Orphanage or any of the worthy causes mentioned in this article, click any of the following links: Mukanzo Orphanage Accountable Development Works or  Days for Girls

About the Author

Michele Rochon has had a 20-year career in marketing and client/employee experience. About 8 years ago, after observing weary and ailing coworkers, Michele began researching mental health and engagement in the workplace, especially the high-stress world of consulting. Michele tested many different methods of managing mental health in a high-pressure work environment, for both managers and their teams. Through this exploratory work, Michele discovered that isolated employees are stressed employees. She recorded her findings in a set of books and tools and now provides these through her web store: workplaceculturestore.com

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