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Wednesday 24th July 2019

New Hope Orphanage

19th March 2009

The children at New Hope Orphanage have never heard of Bernie Madoff, or Lehman Brothers, or even Wall Street. But their precarious young lives have changed dramatically because of the financial and economic mess unfolding thousands of miles away.

children at new hope

New Hope opened in 2005 under the sole direction of Ryan Oliver Hansen - well-known among expatriates in this tiny African country. Tall, blond, and animated, Hansen answered an ad for volunteers to work in a local orphanage - he was 25 at the time - and found himself among people he believed were siphoning donations from needy children in their care, and, worse, subjecting them to physical and emotional abuse.

"In 2005 I pictured myself as a happy-go-lucky volunteer in Africa. I wanted to be a fun big brother to orphans," he says. "Instead, at the age of 25, I became a father figure to formerly abused children and my sense of purpose went from having a humanitarian adventure to protecting these children who felt like my own."

Hansen secured legal guardianship of nine of the children and struck out on his own. He says he was harassed and threatened by well-connected Cameroonians, and local authorities wouldn’t help. Cameroon, while relatively peaceful and stable by African standards, is routinely cited by Transparency International as one of the most corrupt countries on Earth.

But the US Embassy here backed him up, and ultimately New Hope was allowed to operate with relative freedom. Hansen’s family back in Utah and Nevada isn’t wealthy, but his brother quickly raised US$20,000 to help launch the orphanage. Other donations followed to give him an annual operating budget of about US$ 70,000. That paid for school fees, rent, food, a minivan, taxis, vitamins, medical care, a cook, tutor, and guard.

Financial crash

That was before the world economy imploded.

Donations have dropped by 40% in the last six months, and the monthly stipend for March 2009 just never came, Hansen says. “We're basically just calling and e-mailing and doing everything we can to make it through March."

The orphanage I visited in February no longer exists as a result.

The spacious residential facility where nine children slept, ate, studied, and played, along with Hansen, a volunteer, and several local staff, has closed. The children now go to a different New Hope facility during the day and most stay with extended families at night. That move alone has reduced operating costs by half.

Having spent a day with Hansen, his German student volunteer, and the children at New Hope, I can’t help but see this as a terrible loss.

The children - despite early traumas - seemed happy, healthy, and well looked after. All are physically or emotionally scarred, and some pose extreme challenges to the adults who want to help them. But that wasn’t readily apparent on my visit. All of them chatted and smiled and shook hands politely, and when I said goodbye, they threw their arms around me one after another.

Hansen, trained in broadcast communications and dance, seems emotionally intelligent and compassionate well beyond his 28 years. He says he relies on his mother, who worked and raised eight children, for a great deal of advice, but he also reads voraciously on child development, psychology, and education.

He is a gifted communicator, and his passion for the arts was evident everywhere-he even built a dance studio on the old orphanage’s second floor and brought in Asian dancers and choreographers to work with the children.

Hansen has handed over day-to-day operations to a new director, Olivier Wendjel, who has worked at New Hope as a tutor and piano teacher for several years. Hansen will now focus on fundraising, spending more time in the United States.

He says he worries all the time. Will the children remember to wash their hands before meals? Will they speak up for themselves? Will they work hard at school?

The financiers who got us into the current economic mess surely never imagined the ripple effect it would have in outposts such as Yaounde. But nine school-age children here are living very different lives now. The only silver lining is that Ryan Hansen has undoubtedly seized on this "teachable moment," as educators say, and explained to the children why bad loans on other people’s homes have forced them out of theirs.


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