By RACHEL SIEGEL – The Dallas Morning News
When 7,000 children arrive at Camp Life in Zambia this summer, they will be asked to imagine their lives decades into the future.
Then, screaming in unison, the campers will say, “I am the next 50,” in recognition of their nation’s 50th birthday.
That’s the kind of spirit and perspective Greer Kendall of Coppell hopes to inspire in thousands of Zambian orphans who attend his camp, funded by Family Legacy, a Dallas-area ministry.
Though the majority of campers know little beyond the slums they have called home since birth, Kendall insists they can have a life beyond.
“The mentality of the [Zambian] culture is a survivalist mentality,” Kendall, 50, said. “The idea of looking beyond what is here now is so foreign. Why don’t we look forward to the next 50 years? Why don’t we think about the futures of our 8-, 10-, or 13-year-olds?”
Kendall founded Irving-based Family Legacy in 2001. The nonprofit organization, which has a $17.8 million annual budget, reaches orphaned and vulnerable Zambian children through summer programs such as Camp Life, as well as other year-round initiatives.
Over 700 volunteers, including dozens of North Texas families, will travel to Lusaka, the nation’s capital, to help run Camp Life.
Kendall was born to Christian missionaries living in Zambia and moved back to the U.S. when he was 6. Then, in 2000, he returned to his birth country.
Kendall did not expect to feel such an intense connection to the country, said his wife, Susan, 50. But upon learning of Zambia’s orphan crisis, he returned twice that year, conducting research on how to help.
After founding their ministry, the couple ran their first camp for 250 orphans in 2002.
Family Legacy has grown to become the largest evangelical orphan care ministry in the U.S., serving over 7,800 children through its three main ministries — Camp Life, Father’s Heart/Lifeway Christian Academy Schools and the Tree of Life Children’s Village, which houses nearly 600 children full time.
In the summer months, each U.S. volunteer who makes the trip to Zambia is responsible for the well-being and spiritual guidance of 10 orphans ranging from toddlers to college-ready teenagers.
“Family Legacy saves lives in Africa and changes lives in America,” said Michael Hatley, the ministry’s vice president of communications.
That’s a feat former participants say can be accomplished through simple pastimes like painting girls’ fingernails, or the more significant tasks of showing orphans the ways of Christianity.
After years of returning to Zambia with her family, Susan Kendall said her children are different because of their exposure to kids just like them living in the most dire of circumstances. It’s a country where many children raise their siblings; 160,000 children are infected with HIV; and the majority of children are thrown out of the education system by the time they reach secondary school.
“In the United States, there is a tendency to let your faith kind of dry up because you don’t have many opportunities to experience it, like Christianity is something you ‘do’ on a Sunday morning,” Susan Kendall said. “I have the blessing of going to Zambia every year and seeing God work miracles in kids’ lives and Americans’ lives. It’s changed who I am, who I serve, and who God is.”
Mona Logan, 52, traveled to Zambia with her husband and daughter to Camp Life last year. She said it was so heart-wrenching to leave the children that she returned to her home in Coppell determined to make a lasting impact on their lives.
After losing her 17-year-old son, Jacob, in October 2012, Logan decided to raise money to build a home in the Tree of Life Children’s Village. The home is set to open June 14. The eight boys who will be moving into Jacob’s Life Vision Home will be in their final year of high school, the same grade Jacob was in when he died.
“It makes me cry to think about how emotional it is going to be,” Logan said. “Jacob will be like a friend to [the boys]. He’s going to be like a mentor to them. Jacob had a huge drive for a 17-year-old and knew exactly what he wanted to do. I thought that was a perfect fit because we’re trying to prepare [the boys] for life.”
By RACHEL SIEGEL – The Dallas Morning News
Nathan Hunsinger/Staff Photographer