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Trading the business world for the nonprofit world

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By Ret Boney

When Barry Childs left Tanzania almost 50 years ago, HIV/AIDS had not yet ravaged the country and orphaned its children.

But after visiting his childhood home a few years ago and witnessing challenges facing Africa, Childs left his job at Abbott Laboratories and started Africa Bridge, a nonprofit dedicated to improving the lives of Africans, particularly its children.

In May, 46 orphans in the village of Idweli, Tanzania, moved into the children’s center built by Childs’ nonprofit, where they receive food, clothing, medical care and an education.

Childs spent the first 12 years of his life in Tanzania, where his father worked as an agricultural officer for the British government.

“As a child it was paradise,” he says.  “My father would go out on foot safari and I’d go to all these remote villages where they’d never seen a white child before.”

Tanzania has changed since then, with the World Health Organization estimating that, in 2003, 1.6 million people in the country lived with AIDS, or about one in 10 adults. That same year, the country had 980,000 children who had been orphaned by the disease.

                               Barry Childs

Job: President, Africa Bridge, West Linn, Ore.

Education: B.S., psychology, Natal University, South Africa

Born: 1944, Durban, South Africa; raised in Tanga, Tanzania

Family: Wife, Hazel, board member, African Bridge; three children

Hobbies: Running, biking, yoga, pilates

Just read: “The Miracles of Barefoot Capitalism,” by Cornell Wilkes

Inspiration: Nelson Mandela; Desmond Tutu, who serves on board of advisors, Africa Bridge

In the village of Idweli, Childs says, 208 of the 425 children are orphans.

Childs began his corporate career with Exxon in London, where he started in sales and marketing, then spent time in human resources, industrial relations and the computer department before ending up as the head of training for Exxon U.K.

He then joined Abbott Laboratories and moved his family to Germany to start the company’s management development and training program for Europe, later moving to corporate headquarters in Chicago.

Childs attended a leadership conference 1998, where he met a young woman who was working with an American doctor in Tanzania who had set up a hospital there some 30 years ago.

He struck up friendship with the doctor, shipped over medical supplies donated by Abbott and visited later that year.

“It was an amazing experience,” he says.  “I hadn’t been back in 37 years.  I saw my elementary school and my name was still up in the cafeteria.”

He was moved by the beauty of the country, but dismayed by the poverty and constant struggle, and longed to find a way to help.

After talking with his wife, they sold their home, moved into a rental and he quit his job in 2000 to start Africa Bridge, which he now runs out of his home in West Linn, Ore., as a way to help African leaders figure out what to do about the country’s most pressing issues.

To do that, he went on a research mission later that year, interviewing some 80 politicians, journalists, business people, doctors and AIDS patients, and the problem of children orphaned by the disease rose to the surface.

“It was through those interviews that I started appreciating the devastation of AIDS,” Childs says.  “You put AIDS and poverty together and it’s a terrible mix.”

He also learned that much of the aid money flowing into Africa has a “western agenda,” he says, and that Africans had not yet sat down together to decide what they should do.

So in 2002, Childs went to Tanzania again to conduct a needs analysis for the village of Idweli, where he held meetings with the villagers, including two days of meetings with children.

“It was the most exciting meeting I’ve ever run in my life,” he says of the kids’ meeting.  “Children are just so transparent and there was no being polite or being political.  The issues are so clear and so clearly stated.”

As a result of those meetings, the village decided to build a children’s center for orphans, which opened in May.

The majority of the funding for the project, about $35,000, came from Childs, who draws no salary from the nonprofit he started, and his family and friends, with another $25,000 from Newman’s Own for the center’s first-year operating expenses.

In an effort to make the center independent of charity, Childs is working with the Lutheran church in a nearby village to start a micro-loan program, where 10 families who have taken in orphans each get loans of $500 to start an Irish potato farming coop.

The families receive four months training in areas like soil conservation, tilling, banking and marketing, along with two years of follow-up, in exchange for a three-year loan-repayment plan in which the repaid principal goes back into the micro-loan pool and the interest goes to the children’s center.

Africa Bridge and the Lutheran church are also sending one villager to a six-month program at an agricultural college to gain knowledge that can be shared with other farmers in the coop.

Childs is also on schedule to start a heifer program in October, where families of orphans will get cows and start dairy programs, giving some of the offspring of their animals to other needy families and to the children’s center.

“Our concept is not building children’s centers, but making families mini-children’s centers,” he says.  “If we can increase the income of a family who is fostering orphans, then they have the capacity to feed them and send them to school.”

Africa Bridge also plans to help families of orphans keep their children in school by paying for uniforms and supplies until the families can take over those expenses, an approach that has been shown to dramatically lower absentee rates.

There’s a straight-line correlation between getting them some education and reducing HIV/AIDS,” Childs says.

Moving from the corporate world of Abbott Labs, with its deep pockets behind him, to the nonprofit world, was a difficult but valuable transition, he says.

“I approached things with a corporate mindset and I had to unlearn my whole approach to solving problems,” says Childs.  “I had to figure out how to do things in a very grassroots, low-cost way.”

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