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ZOE empowers orphans, vulnerable children in Africa

ZOE empowers orphans, vulnerable children in Africa

Missions and Outreach

Editor’s Note: A pre-conference workshop about the ZOE project will be offered twice during the afternoon of Wednesday, June 6. Click here for information and registration.

Molly McEntire has learned to look at evangelism in many ways.

The mission training and volunteer coordinator for the Florida Conference recently returned from Africa overflowing with enthusiasm and a growing admiration for the various styles of ministry practiced around the globe.

Samson, who graduated from ZOE three years ago, is seen here with his wife and new baby, held by Molly McEntire. He has continued his many businesses and also has become a mentor for ZOE orphans and vulnerable children.

But nothing touched her heart like the ministry that teaches orphans how to provide for themselves and their siblings. That ministry continues to grow, and that is the message she will bring to the Florida Annual Conference in June.

On this trip, McEntire rode a bus for six hours in Kenya, through mountains, along rural back roads and within sight of Mount Kilimanjaro.

It wasn’t a sightseeing trip though. It was a vital outreach as part of the Zimbabwe Orphans Endeavor, better known as the ZOE Project.

It was founded in 2004 by the North Carolina Conference of The UMC as a response to the AIDS crisis in Africa. Many children were in desperate need after losing their parents to disease.

“They could be full orphans, partial orphans or kids who are just extremely vulnerable,” McEntire said.

ZOE tries to help children survive without needing charity.

Volunteers go to a village or community and meet with the local government or tribal chief to learn about the most vulnerable children. Those children are invited to a gathering to hear about the ministry.

“Within three years, an orphan is completely self-sufficient because of this program,” McEntire said. “They are able to live the life that every human should live.”

The kids decide if they want to join the program. If they agree, they are put into working groups of up to 100 others, ranging from 14 to 21 years old.

The groups learn to farm during planting season, so they start growing food right away. They are given small grants to rent property, a common practice in rural Africa, or there may be a child that has inherited land.

They are not given hand-outs.

“That’s the whole point of empowerment,” McEntire said. “The kids are trained in various areas like beauty or barber, tailoring, electrical, plumbing, all different types of things.”

They decide which businesses they will start and are given small grants to do it.

They are fully responsible for their finances and keeping each other accountable.

In addition to learning trades, the orphans are taught basic hygiene and other self-care.

They help each other often.

ZOE participant from the working group Umoja (Unity) at his business. He has been in the program for six months.

“There was one guy who had two siblings, and they were literally sleeping in the dirt,” she said.

According to McEntire, he joined a group and the group went to visit and everybody just cried because it was so terrible. Two weeks later, he had a home. He was also very ill, and group members took him to a specialist to get help.

“One of my roles at the conference is to be an ambassador for ZOE, to teach our church and community groups about the program,” McEntire said.

“I went to get footage for our annual conference coming up and to continue our relationship on the ground. I traveled to brand new groups some of our Florida churches are sponsoring.”

The program works, she said, and graduates are now becoming mentors for new kids in the program.

“You walk down a street and almost every business is these ZOE businesses. They are still a group, still a support system for each other. I saw one guy who had gotten married and got to meet his wife and new baby,” she said.

In Kenya alone, there are 30,000 children in the ZOE program. The success rate is almost 90 percent.

“One of our focuses at the annual conference is ZOE. Part of the offering will go to the program,” she said.

Her brother, Andy McEntire and his wife, Ashley, are funding a group.

ZOE participant from the working group Umoja (Unity) at her business. She has been in the program for six months.

“We believe in ZOE Ministries, especially because of what we have learned through First UMC of Lakeland and through Molly sharing stories and exposing ZOE to us,” Andy McEntire said.

“We felt compelled to sponsor because we are business owners ourselves. We love the idea of empowering kids. For us, being part owners of a coffee shop, that’s part of the reason we are excited is because they are starting to sell tea and coffee, and we wanted to empower them to grow their own beans.”

There are 80 children from 30 households in the McEntires’ group.

“I think it is one of the most effective international missions I’ve ever seen,” ZOE board member Ann Eppinger said. “I spent years looking for the perfect volunteer opportunity. I’ve never seen anything more effective.”

ZOE wasn’t the only part of McEntire’s trip, though.

She served as a delegate to the World Council of Churches in Tanzania as part of its mission and evangelism conference.

“There were more than a thousand participants at the conference from every different part of the world, every background. There were Catholics, Quakers, Presbyterians, Lutherans,” she said.

McEntire said there were also a couple of Methodist bishops at the conference and other UMC delegates from Nigeria, Britain and elsewhere.

“It was very global, and it was an incredible opportunity. There were speakers from every part of the globe and special call-ins. The pope even addressed us by video,” she said.

McEntire participated in several workshops with various Christian-based organizations, including UNICEF.

“This was to really encourage missions around the world, to learn from each other and what others are doing in their denominations and then for evangelism, to look at it in a different way,” she said.

“It has very much changed through the years. It has flipped now. People from Africa are now coming to Europe and America to evangelize us.”

--Yvette Hammett is a freelance writer based in Valrico.

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