October 11, 2023

ADRA Celebrates 40 Years with New US$1 Million Training Program

Initiative bears the name of Ralph S. Watts, the agency’s first president.

Maryellen Hacko, ANN, and Adventist Review
Left to right: Michael Kruger, Ted N. C. Wilson, Igor Radonič, and GC vice presidents celebrate the service of Ralph and Pat Watts (front). [Photo: Lucas Cardino / AME (CC BY 4.0)]

Reflecting on a legacy of justice, compassion, and love, the Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA) commemorated its 40th anniversary during a constituency meeting at the 2023 Annual Council on October 9.

“October 10, 1983, was the day this body voted to form ADRA and establish the bylaws of an organization that has grown in scale from very humble beginnings to one with a global footprint,” ADRA International president Michael Kruger said as he introduced a video report.

Following the video report, a special ceremony honored ADRA pioneers Ralph S. Watts and his wife, Pat. To celebrate their legacy of service, ADRA announced a new US$1 million Ralph Watts New Entry Program, which will train future Adventist professionals for ADRA work across the globe.

A History of Service

Since ADRA’s first major response, which was to famine in Ethiopia in 1983, the organization has become globally renowned for its emergency aid. ADRA has responded to thousands of calamities and natural disasters across the globe.

“As we look at the media today, hurricanes seem stronger, tropical storms bring more devastation, droughts impact farmers, so ADRA has pivoted and changed to respond,” Kruger said.

The video highlighted three core pillars of ADRA’s work: health, community aid, and education. Specifically, its school feeding initiative, assistance in remote Mongolian communities, and recent Amazon school buildings were projects of significant impact.

“Alongside these development pillars, we also recognize the growing need to amplify voices through advocacy,” Kruger added, speaking of ADRA’s first global advocacy campaign “Every Child. Everywhere. In School.” Launched in 2019, the campaign garnered 1.3 million signatures, thanks to the help of church leaders and laypeople.

The video also highlighted ADRA’s education accelerator summit in Europe and “Me Llaman Migrante,” an interactive exhibit in Mexico promoting awareness of the migrant experience.

Stories of Pioneers

Following the video, Kruger invited Ralph Watts, ADRA’s first and longest-serving president, to the stage to recognize his contribution in establishing ADRA in 1983 and growing it significantly in years after. Watts, 90, still serves as a consultant to ADRA and remains passionate about mission.

“This is the man who laid the foundation, and [who] for 17 years sat in the seat I now sit in,” Kruger said, referring to Watts. 

Drawing on a wealth of experience, Watts shared some memories of his time with ADRA. 

“When I look back 40 years and try to recall what it was like when I came to the GC [General Conference] at that time, the ADRA office was in the Review and Herald building, and no one had ever heard of ADRA in the Adventist Church,” Watts said.

He told the story of how ADRA’s humanitarian effort during the Balkan War in the 1990s helped establish ADRA’s name and reputation.

“At that time, Sarajevo [in Bosnia], a critical city, was shut off from the rest of the world,” he said. In response, ADRA established a postal service there and began distributing mail, resulting in thousands of people becoming familiar with ADRA, as it was stamped on every letter and package.

“The big lorries would come into Sarajevo and pick up the ADRA-stamped mail and distribute it across Europe and the world. What a blessing it was to provide this kind of service to the people there,” Watts said.

In a “tremendous surprise” for Watts, South Pacific Division lawyer Igor Radonič was invited to the stage to share the impact of ADRA’s work on his faith. Radonič was only 11 years old when the Balkan war broke out in 1992. His family relied on ADRA’s postal service, he said.

“I sought refuge in nearby Serbia at my grandmother’s house, and the only way we knew my mom was alive was through her letters,” Radonič said. “ADRA also fed my mom during the war as well. She made a covenant with God that if her two children were safe and she survived the war, she would find a place to worship Him. So, it’s because of ADRA that I became an Adventist.”

Embracing Radonič in a hug, Watts was moved by his story. “I believe ADRA can play a significant role in preparing the hearts of people like this young man right here, to follow the Lord,” Watts said. “I believe the best days of ADRA’s ministry are ahead; I just wish I were 40 years younger!”

Recognizing a Legacy

ADRA’s segment at the Annual Council ended with the official recognition of the Wattses’ mission work through the presentation of a trophy and the introduction of the new training program.

“What a thrill it is! I can’t believe this!” Watts said. “I’m honored and really humbled by this. I’m running out of words, and that doesn’t happen too often!”

Speaking to their extensive service both in the United States and across the globe, GC president Ted N. C. Wilson thanked the Wattses before closing the segment with a prayer for them.

“Thank you for such extensive service. We are indebted to you both, and are extremely grateful for what God has done through you,” Wilson said.

The original version of this story was posted by ANN.