How one orphan went from poverty to the Ivy League

Every child deserves to grow up in a loving home. I find it heartbreaking that there are more than 151 million orphaned children living without the love and support needed to grow up to be independent adults.

I hear stories about these children every day, and it pains me to see how much must be done to address their needs. But along with these heartbreaking stories, I also hear about children who overcame adversity to achieve their dreams.

This month while visiting our villages in Ethiopia, I heard such success stories firsthand. I met amazing children and their SOS Mothers. I was particularly interested in meeting and speaking with the SOS Mother of a graduate I met in the states over a year ago.

I was working at SOS Children’s Villages - USA for a one-month period when I met Gebre, who grew up in Mekelle, Ethiopia. While I knew how how significantly our work supports abandoned children and under-resourced communities, hearing Gebre’s story helped me better understand how our work transforms lives for the better.

Gebre was only three months old when he lost both his parents to a famine that claimed nearly one million lives and orphaned children in Ethiopia. Fortunately, baby Gebre found a new family with his SOS Mother and siblings. Gebre’s SOS Mother raised him with love, respect, security, and community — the intangibles that make up a family.

This stability and unconditional love allowed Gebre to thrive. He earned the opportunity to study at the SOS Hermann Gmeiner International College Tema in Ghana, and later earned a full scholarship to study mathematics at Harvard University. Now 29 years old, Gebre works in finance in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

“I can’t imagine what my life would have been like had I not been taken into the arms of my SOS Mother,” he told me. “I am daily humbled by and grateful for my SOS experience.”

Gebre shows his gratitude for his SOS family by sponsoring a little girl in the same village where he was raised. He knows his contribution allows another child to build the close-knit family bonds he built in Mekelle. And those bonds don’t end when a child leaves the SOS home.

After leaving the village in Mekelle for Massachusetts, Gebre’s ties to his SOS family remained strong and he enjoys them today.

“A highlight of my life was having my SOS mother attend my graduation from Harvard,” Gebre says. “She is my mother in every way and we still talk regularly.”

I was so happy to have the chance to meet and thank Medhin, Gebre’s SOS Mother, for being there for him when he most needed love and support. Medhin explained to me that when Gebre came to her, he was so malnourished that they were not sure he was going to live. She showed her joy relating how he began to flourish, growing into a healthy, happy, and curious young boy. I asked her when she realized he was especially smart and she said “by kindergarten.” Medhin had 21 children under here care that year, which is far beyond SOS norms, but the drought was so severe and there were so many orphaned children that the SOS Village in Mekelle was stretched beyond capacity. Like all proud mothers, Medhin shared photos with me of her family of SOS children – including photos of young Gebre. Medhin has since retired from SOS, and now has the additional joy of a biological family.