October 13, 2010

One Woman's Mission


Few dreams are realized or fulfilled. Fewer still exceed the expectations of the dreamer who strives earnestly to take a dream to fruition. But the story of Reaching Hearts for Kids (RHK), a Maryland-based nonprofit organization, is the story of how one woman lives her dream of selfless service to orphans in 13 countries.

As the world observes World Orphans Day on November 8, 2010, Norma Nashed, president and founder of Reaching Hearts for Kids, reminds Adventists around the world to unite with scores of organizations in fulfilling the command of the Lord to “visit the fatherless . . . in their affliction” (James 1:27, KJV).

Norma Nashed, who says she was miraculously healed from cancer, decided to retire from her job at the world headquarters of the Seventh-day Adventist Church 10 years earlier than she expected in order to take up the challenge of bringing material, educational, and emotional assistance to the children of the world.

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Lost Childhood: At an Adventist school in Goma, east Congo, a girl at the tender age of 6 assumes the role of parent.

Equipped with a modest retirement package, and a determination to face the odds, Norma plunged into a one-woman venture to raise funds, identify problem zones, and channel funds to places scattered over 13 countries in Asia, Africa, and the Americas, where children struggle to survive without parents. Relentlessly she sought out partners in the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the United Nations online volunteers, The Quiet Hour, HELP International, countless Adventist schools, colleges, and universities across North America, and enlisted other nonprofit charities to join hands in impacting the lives of children—some suffering from AIDS, thousands living in refugee camps, hundreds in orphanages, and many struck by the scourge of poverty.

Now 11 years after launching Reaching Hearts for Kids in 1999, Norma sees that her faith, patience, perseverance, and positive outlook have borne rich fruit. She oversees programs and projects in Haiti, Indonesia, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Kenya, India, Zambia, Rwanda, Congo, Chad, Bolivia, Jordan, and Zimbabwe. “Our next stops will be Brazil, Sudan, and Iraq, when it is safe to work there. Sudan and Iraq are close to my heart, since I am originally from the Middle East,” says Norma with a gleam in her eyes that conveys the message that no obstacle can hinder her work for children who need help—no matter where they are located on the world’s map.

Humble Beginnings
On a chilly November evening in 1999, Norma received her call to a new role. “I felt God calling me to a more significant role in my life—to serve children, especially orphans, around the world,” she recalls. While visiting the school she attended in her homeland of Jordan, she noticed two children who had been ordered to leave school for nonpayment of fees. Norma promptly paid their fees to ensure that the students were able to return to school.

The needs in the Washington, D.C., metro area where she lives were also a concern. Reaching Hearts for Kids identified and supported scores of children with food, clothes, toys, and monetary gifts. By the end of 2000 the number of students helped had gone from two to 40. Volunteers from her local church responded to Norma’s call and launched a campaign to gather donations in kind and take them to the children. “We kept a single mother from being evicted for failure to pay her mortgage, and assisted other mothers in paying their medical bills; some of our volunteers even provided babysitting help to working mothers,” says Norma. Norma herself taught English as a second language to immigrants from France, China, Korea, and Latin America.

Expanding Resources, New Opportunities
The overseas outreach of Reaching Hearts for Kids was extended to Egypt in 2001, where five children received assistance to complete Christian education at the Nile Union Academy at Gabal Asfar in suburban Cairo. That same year help was made available to six children in a day school in Islamabad, Pakistan, and Burmese refugee children in Thailand. The scope of the mission to children was further enhanced when 135 children were rescued from day labor and offered scholarships to attend school in Panmakta, Hyderabad, India, sponsored by Vijay Nakka, a missionary from the ?United States, in association with Round Table India, an initiative of the World Bank and the United Nations.

With funds from friends, some originally from Iraq and Egypt, and Quiet Hour TV, Reaching Hearts for Kids entered Ethiopia to provide aid to an orphanage in Ambo and now plans to help build a children’s ward at Gimbi Hospital, in association with Loma Linda University and Adventist Health International. The school in Ambo was built by HELP International, a Maryland-based charity, in a partnership that provided water, electricity, desks and other equipment, food, clothing, and even a school bus for 37 orphans. “[HELP International] helped us in six countries,” says Norma.

More Areas of Need
The needs of children in Africa came to the fore when Norma shared with church family and friends pictures and stories about the plight of AIDS orphans and kids caught in the never-ending crossfire of ethnic violence. Many in Norma’s church, Reaching Hearts International in Spencerville, Maryland, and her ever-increasing circle of supporters were moved by the real-life stories they heard. There was hardly a dry eye in church during a PowerPoint presentation that showed funeral pictures of an AIDS orphan who died in Maasai Namanga, Tanzania.

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A Full Plate: Reaching Hearts for Kids provides meals at a refugee camp in Goma, east Congo.

Indonesia, the nation of 17,000 islands with the world’s largest Muslim population, is home to many projects supported by Reaching Hearts for Kids. In 2005 Reaching Hearts for Kids started out by helping an orphanage in Medan, North Sumatra, that provided shelter to orphans of the great tsunami that devastated Sumatra, and another orphanage with nine child-victims of an earthquake in Jogya, Central Java. Further support was sent to orphanages in Singkwang in West Kalimantan on Borneo, and Kupang in Nusa Tenggara, and Kawangkoan on the Celebes island.

Speaking about the timely support rendered by Reaching Hearts for Kids in his native Indonesia, Jonathan Kuntaraf, director of Sabbath School and Personal Ministries at the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, said, “The 36 children at Kupang are casualties of the war between Indonesia and the breakaway East Timor region. In Kawangkoan 46 children receiving aid from Reaching Hearts for Kids are all victims of religious persecution in East Indonesia.” Support given to children in Indonesia ranges from educational grants to housing, food, and clothing.

Turning Point
A personal tragedy that cost Norma dearly turned out to be an unexpected blessing. On December 15, 2007, a burning candle in a neighbor’s condominium sparked a fire that destroyed Norma’s apartment and most of the records of Reaching Hearts for Kids. Norma had boarded a plane for Addis Ababa the previous day. Various media personnel rushed to the scene of the fire in Beltsville, Maryland, and FOX News anchor Melanie Alnwick Googled the address. Alnwick discovered that the office of Reaching Hearts for Kids was located in the building. Further efforts by Alnwick led her to Norma’s pastor, Michael Oxentenko. The unsolicited publicity led to new sources of funding. Reaching Hearts for Kids has been profiled in both print and broadcast media.

In distant Tanzania, Norma is helping a local doctor establish a primary school for Maasai children. A well has already been dug and a water pump installed with funds from HELP International and Bogenhofen Institute in Austria.

In Goma, east Congo, where a civil war has been raging for 15 years, Reaching Hearts for Kids started a feeding program for 1,000 children in a refugee camp. In southern Africa, it raises funds to buy German-made cook stoves for families. Through her untiring ministry, inspired, she says, by her mother, whom she laid to rest in July 2010, Norma continues to inspire a growing number of youth to care for children in need.

A group will soon leave the United States to help at the Eden Garden Orphanage and refugee camps in Haiti. During a recent meeting with Haitian ambassador to the United States Raymond Joseph, Norma gave him her word that she would stay connected with the people of Haiti to help them build a better future for their children.

The great composer Johann Sebastian Bach and Herbert Hoover, thirty-first president of the United States, both orphans, were helped by strangers! Norma’s call to the church is: “Let us not forget the fatherless and the destitute anywhere in the world.” In God’s hands, a little is much, and willing hearts are powerful instruments.
Dittu Abraham is a former editor of the Southern Asia Tidings and currently president of Frontline Community Services in Takoma Park, Maryland, providing support and relief to individuals with disabilities. This article was published October 14, 2010.