While preaching at a crusade in Ethiopia in the mid-2000s, Ethiopian Evangelical Church of Jacksonville Pastor Michael Arega watched as a little girl approached him from the crowd.
“I thought she was hungry and needed food,” he said. “Instead, she asked me to hug her.”
Arega found out that the girl, Medehanet “Mede” Tegen, had lost both of her parents.
“It touched my heart because most of the time they need food, but this girl needed love,” he said.
When Arega returned to Jacksonville, he told Manny Keyser, pastor of Parkwood Baptist Church in Arlington, the church that houses the Ethiopian Evangelical Church on Lone Star Road, about his experience.
“I told my friends about Michael’s experience and how these kids need to experience love,” Keyser said. “We were able to get eight children’s names that had no family from one of the townships, and they said they would be grateful if we could take them.”
Arega and Keyser founded Elpis International, a nonprofit in Ethiopia, to provide basic necessities such as food, clothing and shelter as well as medical care, education and counseling for orphaned children.
Since launching in Ethiopia in 2006, just over 100 children have been helped by the organization’s two feeding centers.
Tegen, now 14, was one of the first girls to enter Elpis International’s feeding center in Awassa, Ethiopia.
Two years ago, Keyser said she began complaining of severe back pain, so after bringing her to a local hospital, doctors told her she had pulled a muscle.
After several treatments, Tegen’s pain was increasing, so members from the organization brought her to a specialty hospital in the capital, Addis Ababa, where she was diagnosed with a severe form of scoliosis.
“Doctors said she had to have surgery, and we looked everywhere and petitioned several hospitals in Ethiopia and they couldn’t guarantee that she would live, so the surgery had to happen abroad,” Keyser said. “I told our board members about it, and one of our members, Joel Weaver, said his son Ethan had the same surgery, so he made a contact at Wolfson Children’s Hospital.”
In June, the Jacksonville hospital agreed to perform Tegen’s spinal fusion surgery for free.
“When we went to apply for her visa, it was denied, and the airlines didn’t want to have her fly because they thought she’d injure herself on the flight,” Keyser said.
Instead of giving up, Elpis International continued to petition the Ethiopian government to allow Tegen to come to the U.S. to get her surgery.
“There’s a lot of conflict going on in Ethiopia now and they didn’t want to grant her a visa, but because of her condition, they gave us the longest visa,” Keyser said.
Tegen was awarded a two-year visa; she landed at Jacksonville International Airport on Sept. 16.
She had never been to the United States, let alone on an airplane.
“I was surprised that I landed safely; that amazed me,” Tegen said to Arega, who served as a translator. “I was scared on the plane, and I have never been outside of Ethiopia, so this is cool.”
Tegen, who wore a gray shirt with “hello beautiful” written on it, smiled as she shifted in her chair and spoke softly to Arega and with her hands on her face.
“I thought Florida would be full of people like in Ethiopia, but all I see are cars,” she said. “Everything is also really green here, and I was surprised to see the bridge.”
Tegen’s surgery is scheduled for Oct. 3, and though the length of her recovery is unknown, she is looking forward to playing soccer and dancing again.
“I’m amazed that people are helping me with my surgery,” she said. “I imagined that they would only help feed me and send me to school. I did not even dream beyond that, and for them to take me outside of Ethiopia and get me this kind of support, I’m amazed.”
Though Tegen is only in eighth grade, she said Elpis International has helped shape her future.
“After I get an education, I’d like to serve kids who don’t have a family, and I want to give them hope,” she said. “I believe that by God’s will I can help them.”
For more information on Elpis International or to make a donation for follow-up care for Tegen, visit www.elpisinternational.org or call (904) 725-2500.
Ann Friedman: (904) 359-4619
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