2015 #MyGivingStory Award Winner

By Maya Papaya Gilsey


“Help!” “Help!” “Maya, help!”

No, I was not involved in some elaborate rescue, nor was anyone in any true trouble. These cries, shouted by 90 children, were about their need to find the perfect Lego for their separate masterpieces.

I was in Ethiopia volunteering at the Selamta Family Project, a nonprofit that unites marginalized women and orphaned children to create forever families.

Selamta had received a large donation from Lego and I had arrived in Addis Ababa with three duffel bags stuffed with Lego bricks, Lego heads, and Lego bodies. As a volunteer, I was there to organize and run extracurricular activities for the children during their summer school break.

The flurry of Amharic words, of which I knew very few, didn't stop me from falling in love. I fell in love with the children, with their curiosity, intensity, and constant affection. I fell in love with the way they yelled my name and the way they smiled when we couldn’t understand each other. I fell in love with their homes tucked away on cobblestone streets and their moms who welcomed me into these homes with hugs and the smells of injera and coffee. The children sensed my love and taught me to say “Ewodihalehu” in Amharic, “I love you” in English.

The AIDS virus had once orphaned these children by taking their parents, and many were left to fend for themselves on the streets before being brought to Selamta. Their new Selamta moms were once marginalized by society, often the result of them being child brides. Before Selamta, these women and children didn’t know where they would get their next meal or where they could spend a night in safety. Selamta gave them a second chance at life and a new loving family.

On the day I had to leave to go back to the U.S., Fasika, age 8, sat by the taxi that was to take me back to the airport. “Maya, stay?” he asked. “Ewodihalehu”. I promised him I would be back.

I flew home with new energy and a desperate need to stay involved with Selamta. I quickly began fundraising and raised enough to become the sponsor for Fasika and his brother for the next two years. I contacted Selamta’s Executive Director and asked for any opportunity to help. I soon began running their Instagram account, which I helped to grow to more than 2,000 followers. I then took over Twitter and Facebook and became Selamta’s Social Media Coordinator. I am currently in graduate school and completing an internship at a hospital, however, my volunteer work for Selamta is what holds my heart. I give so that their cries of “help!” can always be in regards to Legos and other childlike worries, and not about a need for clean water, clothes, or shelter. I give so their stories can be told. I give in return for what the children gave me; a new outlook on life, a deep passion for others, and a sense of fulfillment in a life that does not always allow for second chances.

Written in support of Selamta Family Project.