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Young Duke grad aiding Tanzanian orphans 

October isn't the best month to be fund-raising for a good cause. Generous Triangle residents are doubtless feeling tapped out by all the Katrina relief efforts, which continue to dominate the benefit landscape. Local charities are feeling the pinch as the holiday season approaches.

Generating interest in needs far from our shores is always a challenge, one that Katrina has magnified a hundredfold. But Valerie Johnson is used to long odds. As the co-founder and director of the Amani Children's Home, a refuge for street kids in Moshi, Tanzania, Johnson has defied the odds since settling in Africa in 2002. Spurred by a chance encounter with a group of children sleeping on the side of a Moshi road, Johnson launched the nonprofit with two children, a mattress, a table, a chair, two pots and three volunteers. Still operating on a shoestring, Amani now houses, feeds and educates more than 70 boys and girls and has placed dozens more with relatives in other cities and villages.

The problem of homeless children in Africa, many orphaned by AIDS or driven from home by abuse, is mind-boggling. Estimates of the number of orphaned children in Tanzania alone tops 1.5 million. Without Amani and other shelters, street children face chronic hunger and illness, violence, exploitation and other abuse.

Amani does more than provide shelter from the storm. As many of the residents have serious emotional and physical problems, counseling and rehabilitation are an integral part of the program. Amani's education initiative has provided funds for both residents and other street kids to attend school--education in Tanzania is not guaranteed and costs more than many families can afford, about $150 per year inclusive; consequently, half the country's children never complete primary school.

One of the benefits of donating to Amani ("peace" in Swahili) is that a little bit of cash goes a long way. The cost of food, education, clothing, medical care and counseling for one child is only $29 a month. About $350 buys most of what a kid needs for a year. The entire operation, including staff salaries, runs on less than $4,000 a month. That's considerably less than the average monthly wage of a single Katrina contractor.

Johnson has embarked on a fundraising campaign to raise $365,000 for a permanent structure--currently, Amani is crammed into an undersized two-bedroom rented house whose master bedroom must accommodate 60 of the residents. To date, private donors and other charities have pledged about 60 percent of the money. Beginning this month, Johnson is holding fundraisers in select U.S. cities to try and make up the difference, including a reception at Duke and a climb up Mount Mitchell on Saturday, Oct. 22, that will benefit Amani and another Tanzanian organization.

Remarkably, Johnson is only 25 years old and was freshly graduated from Duke when she started Amani while doing volunteer work in Tanzania. At an age when many of her peers are hopping on the treadmill, killing time in grad school or just partying hard, Johnson serves as inspiration for an entire new generation of activists, and most of the older ones as well.

For information about Amani Children's Home or to donate online, go to www.amanikids.org. To contribute to the Mt. Mitchell hike or to participate, go to www.aidsclimb.org.

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