Photo courtesy of Charlene Williams

Lisa Jamu has always been fascinated by Africa, from when she was a child flipping through her grandmother's National Geographic magazines to a post-graduate wrestling with the vast continent's economic challenges.

"More than 80 percent live in poverty and yet still seem to smile and respect each other," Jamu, a Salt Lake native, says. "Really, I am not sure what has pulled me to Africa other than the people."

After earning her bachelor's in languages and linguistics from Georgetown University, where she researched African countries in-depth, and her master's in international relations from American University in 1994, she made her dream journey to Malawi in southeastern Africa.

Far from her Avenues home, she worked for Project Hope to promote mosquito nets used to curb malaria. She found her true calling in Africa after meeting Malawian Styn Jamu that same year. They married in 1996 and have two sons and two daughters.

Like 11 percent of Malawian adults, most of Styn's family had HIV, and Jamu found out, as adults died, children were orphaned and needed support. "They didn't just need financial support, but the love and guidance that was missing," Jamu says.

Children in the program face challenges ranging from HIV to psychological trauma. In response, Jamu created Stepping Stones International, a non-profit and non-governmental organization (NGO) offering guidance to African orphans and children in dire situations.

Sandy Petersen, Jamu's mother, runs the U.S. headquarters in Salt Lake City. "It's here we process donations that come from the United States and other non-African countries," Petersen says. Stepping Stones set up shop in the village of Mochudi, Botswana in 2006.

Children in the program face many different challenges, ranging from HIV to psychological trauma. "About 25 percent of our kids are sexually abused. They're all either infected or affected by HIV, and they are often orphans living with grandparents, aunts or uncles," Jamu says. "Recently, we had a child who saw her mother get stabbed by her father."

Stepping Stones enrolls kids ages 12 and older for after-school tutoring, goal setting and education on issues like teen pregnancy and HIV prevention, setting them on paths toward building careers. They also do volunteer projects, like creating recycling programs, perform plays about community issues and play sports like netball (think basketball without the dribbling).

Stepping Stones also trains leaders in schools across Botswana to teach kids about setting goals, alcohol abuse and safe sex. And of course, students receive counseling for the problems they face. "Our mission is to nurture their physical, mental and spiritual well-being," Jamu says.

More than 200 kids are enrolled in Stepping Stones, and 51 have been placed in jobs or secondary education. The program is expanding to two other Botswanan districts this year, and Jamu says she's scoping out Uganda and Zambia for future expansions. Stepping Stones' success has earned site visits from First Lady Michelle Obama, Princess Anne and ambassadors from around the world.

While the issues students' face can be overwhelming, one thing keeps her job rewarding: "Seeing them smile, because they don't do that all the time."

Visit steppingstonesintl.org for more info. For volunteer opportunities, contact Jamu at lisajamu@steppingstonesintl.org 

Back>>>Mimi Cruz, owner of Night Flight Comics

Back>>>Read other stories in our August 2013 issue