Around the world, the United States symbolizes a place where all citizens are given an equal chance to achieve success and prosperity through hard work and perseverance. We call this ‘The American Dream’, and it often includes a shared formula: education, career, family, financial security and physical health.

As more pieces of ‘The American Dream’ puzzle fall into place, we often seek opportunities to serve others. Guided by good intentions, we apply our blueprint for a happy life to underdeveloped regions of the world calling out for support. But, sometimes in our desire to help we accidently hurt by causing dependencies while robbing dignity.

Sartell resident Tina Schmidt fell into this well-meaning cycle until a series of circumstances helped her understand that acting and speaking for those living in extreme poverty was not allowing them the gift of becoming self-sufficient and standing on their own. In fact, it was preventing the growth of the most critical tool to rise out of poverty: the knowledge and resources to use their own voice.

Tina Schmidt

Schmidt’s journey to where she is today, Director of Development and Communications for Zoe Empowers, a nonprofit focused on equipping orphans with the training and resources to become self-sufficient young adults in just three years, began in 2004 when when she and her husband, Paul, embarked upon the process of international adoption. Admittedly naive to the life-altering situations they were about to find themselves in, the Schmidts chose to adopt from the African country of Sierra Leone.

After two separate trips to Sierra Leone, including an eye-opening exposure to true poverty and the multitude of issues orphans face, the Schmidts’ two children arrived safely to their Minnesota home. (They’ve since adopted a third child from Sierra Leone.) Along the way, a calling in Tina was awakened; one that was compelling her to change the appalling conditions she witnessed at the orphanage home during the adoption process.

“I saw children removed from their communities, siblings ripped apart and orphaned children exploited. Truly unimaginable scenarios were playing out before my eyes,” explained Schmidt. “But, what broke my spirit more than anything was the children’s inability to speak up to authorities. They were being abused but could not say anything or they would be punished. They had no voice.”

In 2009, five years after the adoption, Schmidt found herself on a plane back to Sierra Leone with nine other women. The purpose: open a safe, ethical orphanage home with an organization she helped to start. By providing orphans with a secure home, food and education, Schmidt was convinced true change would result. “I remember each of us checking three bags filled with everything we could fit for the kids. We wanted to bring ‘The American Dream’ to Africa in our suitcases,” Schmidt said. “I needed to take action somehow, and this solution made perfect sense to me at the time. ”

Schmidt talks with a group of Sierra Leone children in 2009.

Schmidt’s first mission upon returning to Sierra Leone was to rescue a group of exploited orphans living in an orphanage with deplorable conditions run by a local woman whom Schmidt had become aware of through her personal adoption experience. Of the 84 children living in this “orphanage”, only 26 were true orphans with no living parents. The remaining children had living relatives who were easily convinced to send their child to live in the orphanage on the promise of a free education. The proprietor took special care to portray these kids as completely desperate to elicit financial support when American missionaries paid a visit.

“My team and I had learned the proprietor kept the 26 children without parents locked up in a room with four concrete walls, no windows, no lights and no airflow,” explained Schmidt. “The day they were discovered by a City Council official, they were belly down on the concrete floor, attempting to stay cool in the stifling room from the slightest breeze coming from underneath the door. They were extremely sick, malnourished and abused.”

By exposing the condition to certain government officials and UNICEF, Schmidt and her team were able to see most of the children in the “orphanage” reunited with their birth families, with the exception of the 26 most vulnerable children who were kept in the proprietor’s care, due to deeply rooted systemic issues.

This was when Schmidt began to understand something critical: the absence of justice in areas of extreme poverty preyed relentlessly upon the most vulnerable children, silencing their voices. She came to learn that not even her American status or voice could save them. She began looking for solutions that would empower orphans to save themselves.

Within the community, Schmidt noticed orphans receiving support from relief organizations still faced countless challenges, such as debilitating stigma as a ‘sponsored child’, or someone incapable of supporting themselves; their dependency on outside relief bound them to a web of injustice. Furthermore, the orphans needing the most support were not benefiting because their caregiver kept the resources provided by donors for themselves or for their own family.

A young girl sits on Schmidt’s lap during a Sierra Leone trip in 2014.

With each passing day, Schmidt was losing hope. Questions of sustainability loomed, as the orphanage model cost was surpassing $300 per month to support one child, and true change still wasn’t occurring. “It felt like we were putting a Band-aid on a broken leg,” Schmidt described. “The intention was good, but it didn’t address the root cause.”

Meanwhile, back in the U.S., Schmidt and her husband were managing the grief their adoptive children were experiencing from the loss of their home country’s familiarities. She began to see the value for orphaned children—especially older children—of remaining in their community. But, given her experience working in Sierra Leone, she knew too well how orphaned children were vulnerable to abuse, trafficking and exploitation in areas of extreme poverty. The immense frustration fueled Schmidt to switch gears entirely.

In the wake of leaving her position with the orphanage in 2013, Schmidt took a hard look back at her efforts working in areas of extreme poverty over the last decade and noticed a common theme: Programs equipped adults as the primary beneficiary with the hope it would spill over to the vulnerable children in the community. However, as she had witnessed, the benefits from building schools, providing education, medical care, food, shelter, clothing, agriculture skills or vocational training in a community were not trickling down to the most vulnerable children, the true orphans; this group was consistently excluded from reaping the benefits of external support.

It became clear to Schmidt that orphans did not need her acting and speaking on their behalf nearly as much as they needed to be able to find their own voice, and their own abilities to achieve a good life. Voicelessness and vulnerability did not have to be their permanent state. Of all that was absent in the lives of orphans, the inability to enforce their rights and benefit from their own labor was paramount.

Destined to find a holistic solution addressing all the challenges orphans face in poverty, Schmidt stumbled upon Zoe Empowers, an organization implementing a program similar to the one Schmidt was dreaming of but with one significant difference: Rather than equipping adults to care for the vulnerable children in their communities, Zoe Empowers was going right to the children and teaching them how to care for themselves—helping children help themselves.

Intrigued, Schmidt connected with the organization’s leadership, and upon learning more about its approach and sustainable results, she talked herself into a job. Nearly four years later, Schmidt’s confidence in Zoe Empowers’ holistic empowerment model being a solution to end extreme poverty for orphans around the world only continues to strengthen.

Zoe Empowers has served over 100,000 orphans living in Kenya, Zimbabwe, Malawi, Libera, Rwanda and India in its eleven years of existence, with plans to expand into Tanzania in 2019. The program, originally developed by a group of Rwandan social workers frustrated by the cycle of relief and dependency stemming from well-intended organizations, has evolved to provide an efficient model whose impact is two-fold: it gives orphans a safe setting to develop a robust peer support group and allows local communities to stand behind their young people.

Because the program is facilitated within their respective communities, community members who once saw these young people as a problem, develop a new respect for them as they bear witness to their empowerment journey. These children find their voice, confidently start businesses and turn their life around without handouts—building up the economy of their community in the process.

Guided by the mantra of “doing less for the orphans” so they have room to do more for themselves, Zoe Empowers stands firm in its design, which includes no orphanages, choosing instead to focus on the young people renting or building their own homes; Zoe Empowers does not give away food, but focuses on empowering orphans to grow and/or buy their own food; and there is intentionally one Zoe Empowers staff person per 1,000 orphans, encouraging the children take the lead in their own journey out of poverty.

By promoting independence over dependence, the confidence and pride embodied by each empowerment group is sustained well beyond the three-year program. Instead of donors engaging in a giveaway program, they provide the small

trainings and resources these young people need to realize their own dreams; and all for approximately $8 per month per child. Empower is not only more sustainable, it costs less, too.

“What makes Zoe Empowers successful is the fundamental understanding that poverty is a complex issue that requires multiple areas to be addressed simultaneously,” Schmidt explained. The empowerment model impacts at least eight major areas of life: food security; secure housing; hygiene and health care; child rights; formal education or vocational training; entrepreneurial and business training; psychological well-being; spiritual development. Approximately 85 percent effective, as corroborated by the organization’s impact assessment data, graduates become sustainably self-sufficient across every area of life.

A young Rwandan boy shares his story with Schmidt in February 2017.

During her most recent visits to Kenya, Schmidt led a small missions group from The Waters Church in Sartell. Upon an evening reflection, one traveler framed what she witnessed that day by saying: “Poverty is people without God. Before Zoe Empowers they felt empty, and now God has filled them.”

That simple comment jogged Schmidt’s memory back to her days of filling her suitcases with ‘The American Dream’, and it served as an affirmation that she was now packing the right things: her personal belongings and a notebook to record transformation stories of the newly empowered orphans in their own voice.

The Schmidt Family (from left to right): Paul Schmidt, Derrick Warfield (fiancé of Emily), Emily Schmidt, Milo (Goldendoodle) John Schmidt, Howa Schmidt, Luke Schmidt, Katie Schmidt, Tyler Petron (fiancé of Katie), Tina Schmidt