Woman from N. Linthicum turns energy to Africa

Baltimore Sun

There is nothing like a dream to create the future. Utopia today; flesh and blood tomorrow.

- Victor Hugo in "Les Miserables" (1862)

A lifetime ago, when she was a girl in North Linthicum, Addie Houston had a talk with her father, a successful engineer and inventor who traveled the world.

"Some children aren't as lucky as you are," she remembers him saying. "They have to grow up without parents. It's just something you ought to know."

The thought horrified Addie, then 5. She cried herself to sleep, but not before fixing a plan in her mind.

"I'm going to run an orphanage someday," she thought.

More than half a century later, Houston, a retired businesswoman who lives much of the year in Rehoboth Beach, Del., is about to realize that dream and then some. She's in the process of adopting a 6-year-old orphan from a small village in Tanzania - and of starting a home for 12 other orphans in the poverty-wracked African nation.

"It's hard to take too seriously the things I used to think were so important - the daily dramas, the striving to achieve professionally, the quest for material things," she says.

Saturday, Houston will address fellow alumni of Andover High, the Linthicum school they attended during its years of operation (1961-1990). Few have seen her since she graduated. She'll solicit funds and donations of toys and supplies.

For Houston, the hardest part will be finding the words to convey the drama of her journey, the gulf between the world she once knew and the one she lives in now.

"I don't know if the right words exist," she says. "I haven't found them yet."

To knit or not to knitShe had a successful life by any conventional Western standard - and what felt like a very happy one.

She grew up on Mansion Road not far from Overlook Park, attending Andover and graduating in 1968. A good student, she struck classmates as a generous person.

"Addie seemed to think of others more readily than most teenagers do," says Chrissy Gardner, a classmate.

As Houston matured, she also knew an opportunity when she saw one. After studying at the Johns Hopkins University, she learned of a national trend called "deinstitutionalization" - a movement among U.S. governors to close down state-run facilities for the disabled. She formed a management firm to help smooth the closures, built it into a thriving business, and sold it in 2001. She could have retired at 51.

A quiet Type-A sort, she found the thought unnerving. "Was I supposed to take up knitting?" she says. She started looking around for something to do.

One day at the dentist's office, while flipping through a People magazine, Houston spotted a photo of Angelina Jolie reading a book. The title: "Condemned to Repeat? The Paradox of Humanitarian Action."

She ordered a copy. Its theme fascinated her - the idea that Western altruists often fail because they view the cultures they wish to help through an arrogant lens.

"I don't know why," she says, "but I knew my life had changed."

Shortly afterward, she found herself on a plane next to a passenger wearing the uniform of the Salvation Army. The woman, she learned, had created the organization's International Social Justice Commission.

She scored an invitation to the headquarters in New York and soon found herself meeting movers and shakers in the world of international relief. Many found her background impressive. Job offers started pouring in.

"I could be a little picky," she says.

Screaming insideMost who follow the news in Africa know of the horrors that have plagued Uganda, especially of the bloody rule of Idi Amin during the 1970s. Fewer may realize tragedy is still part of daily life.

Take the plight of female villagers. By custom, they're the ones who venture into the forests to find firewood.

When they do, they're often raped. Those who make it back tend the fires, the smoke from which causes respiratory illness.

Houston liked one nongovernmental organization, the International Lifeline Fund, which distributes clean-burning stoves to reduce the problem. She accepted a job in March of 2007.

Her mission: Spend two months in Uganda assessing the program, and start drumming up sponsors. Her stint was a shock.

First was the corruption. On reviewing the company books, she found the local director, a Ugandan, had been embezzling. She had to travel with armed guards as authorities combed Uganda looking for him.

Then there were the seismic problems. Houston, herself a mother, met kids by the hundreds, many orphaned by disease or violence. She saw the handiwork of a deranged faction, the Lord's Resistance Army, which kidnaps children, drugs them and turns them into killers in their own towns.

She met a 10-year-old who tried to escape. Guards cut off his limbs with a machete.

"Internally, I scream," she wrote a friend. Most nights, she bawled herself to sleep.

Upon returning home, Houston ended her relationship with the NGO. But she found herself, oddly enough, recalling the strange beauties of the landscape in Africa, the still-hopeful faces of many children, their simple desire to attend school.

"I've heard people say Africa gets in your blood," Houston says. "It is so true, so unexplainably profound. Everything is so raw, harsh and confusing, yet intriguingly beautiful at the same time." She was looking for a way to go back.

Poverty, joyHouston says her daughter, Graceanna Enzinger, 23, is her inspiration, and it's easy to see why. A graduate student in public administration, she has always been the sort to volunteer for community causes. Her energy seems boundless.

When she told her mom of a new friend, Fratern Miska, Houston's ears perked up.

Miska, a Tanzanian native, had just started an NGO of his own. The mission of Volunteer Kilimanjaro was to bring Western creativity to Tarakea, his home village at the foot of Africa's tallest peak. Though desperate poverty plagues Tanzania, which borders Uganda, the political situation is stabler. She became a Miska recruit.

She moved to Tarakea, a remote village of about 3,000 mostly tribal people, last July, and has been a resident since.

Some of the daily problems there, it was clear, differ little from Uganda's. Because of AIDS and alcoholism, the average life expectancy is about 45. Tarakea is home to hundreds of orphans. Many have worms, scabby scalps and swollen bellies, signs of impending starvation.

Houston, like everyone, finds it eternally annoying that the electricity fails several times a day, that high winds gust in off the mountain, that the ground is so hard there are no wells. On the bigger things, she has learned to manage her despair. "That's a form of self-indulgence I don't have time for," she says.

In Tarakea, culture clashes are mostly of the slapstick kind. Villagers, many of whom have never seen a white person, or mzungu, before, often run up for a nose-to-nose look. Once, she tried the familiar joke of pretending to take off a child's nose with her thumb and forefinger.

"That gesture means [screw] you in the Masai culture," she says with a laugh.

And Tarakeans, though they lack the comforts we take for granted, have much to teach Westerners. Their poverty breeds a stronger sense of community than Huston has ever seen. And for all their deprivation, the people exhibit enduring gentleness.

"There's always laughter, dancing and music," Houston says.

'We Praise Him'One Sunday morning, when Enzinger was visiting, mother and daughter sat together in a church service. (Many Tarakeans attend the local Catholic church.)

Behind them, two boys squirmed in a pew. One kept tugging Enzinger's hair.

Suddenly, there was a commotion. The second boy had hauled off and socked the first in the head.

Houston already knew the 6-year-old who delivered the punch. His name, Tumsifu, is KiSwahili for "We Praise Him." The boy's father, an abusive alcoholic, was dead, and his mother abandoned him at birth, but he had a naturally sunny disposition and a diplomat's personality. She didn't know he was so gallant.

"That's when I fell in love with him," she says. This was an orphan to adopt.

She used her BlackBerry to e-mail her husband, Lewes, Del., surgeon Max Moise. "Remember that [childhood] dream I told you about?" she asked. "Do you think we're too old?"

"Of course we're too old," he joked in his reply. "Let's go for it."

Once the adoption paperwork in two countries is complete - a process that could take months - Houston plans to move Tumsifu to the States, where she'll home-school him for a year before enrolling him locally. She hopes to return him to Tanzania several times a year so he doesn't lose "those parts of his culture we can't provide."

Rounding out the adoption theme, she has found a scenic, 6-acre plot for sale at the edge of town, a site with two cabins large enough to house 12 children. She and Moise are finalizing plans to create Project of the Heart Children's Home there - an orphanage she figures will cost $30,000 to start up, another $20,000 a year to run.

If they turn up no sponsors, they'll pay for it themselves. "It will happen," she says.

It doesn't take muchGardner, Houston's classmate from Andover High, has a saying: "Now that we don't exist in bricks, we exist in clicks." She is the semi-official organizer for the Class of 1968, helping about 130 alumni stay in touch online and organizing the annual holiday fund-raiser.

She hasn't seen Houston in 41 years, but when Addie wrote her from Tanzania, the saga enriched her Yuletide cheer. "After reading what she has been up to, I'm not the same person," Gardner says.

Dozens seem to feel the same way. Andover alums have learned that Tanzanian children have no toys and very few school supplies. Many can't afford the $150 a year it costs to be educated. A pencil or notebook, a baseball cap or a handful of jacks will bring untold joy.

Writes Rick Wagener, Class of 1967: "This time of year, we cannot only think of ourselves or our families, but should think about local and global humanitarian efforts. This year the alumni have chosen to offer a gift to themselves by helping a dear friend with her life's dream."

For that friend, Tumsifu and the orphanage should complete a circle that began in Anne Arundel long ago. "I decided one way to help was to remember my own childhood, where I had the luxury to dream," says Houston, who returns to Tanzania next month, ideally with a bagful of goodies. "Now I have the ability to act."

How to help Donations welcome, including portable toys and school supplies. Donors can leave items with Dave Schmidt at Nor-Lin Auto Parts, 460 N. Camp Meade Road, Linthicum, through Friday.

To help sponsor a child's education (total cost: $150 per year), make checks payable to Volunteer Kilimanjaro and mail to Addie Houston, 40 Kings Creek Circle, Rehoboth Beach, Del. 19971. (In the memo line, write: Restricted Donation, POH Children's Home.)

For more information, e-mail allandoveralumni@yahoo.com

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