By Jane Meyers- Network for Enterprising Women Newsletter – February 2007
NEW is proud to present our first Leadership in Action Award at the February meeting to Malerie Pratt, a 2004 graduate of Bend High. Malerie is a true leader who is receiving on the job training in the school of life. Malerie’s adventure began as a side stop, one of those detours in life that end up taking us unexpectedly to the main highway. She was enrolled at COCC, doing a semester abroad in Italy and decided to stop in Africa and see if there were something she could do to be of service. Once she got to Zambia she realized she couldn’t help getting involved. There was something compelling about it for her. “I didn’t feel like I had a choice when I saw the need,” she said. As a result, she did something every successful woman knows. She made a commitment. She says she didn’t know how this would all unfold. She only knew that quitting wasn’t an option.
Malerie formed a friendship and a partnership with a woman named Violet Membe. They decided to take a step toward addressing the problem of orphans. Estimates are that 1 out of 3 children in Zambia will be orphaned by 2010. Rather than create institutional orphanages with an American slant, Malerie and Violet decided to create a home in a Zambian house with Zambian parents so the children would grow up with their own culture. Malerie insists that her goal is not to impose her own culture but to empower the native people to solve their own problems. “I just want children to have a happy, safe environment so they can excel in life, not make them into Americans,” she said.
Malerie and Violet have created a non-profit organization called VIMA Lupwa Homes. VIMA comes from their names and Lupwa means family in the native Bembe language. They have just completed the building of the first home. Violet and her husband and their two children form the core of the family and they have added 8 children who come from the direst circumstances to complete the family. Malerie said, “There are so many vulnerable children. We could only take the worst cases.” One child in the home is a little girl whose only surviving relative, her father, was sexually abusing her. Another, was a girl so malnourished that, although she was 12, she looked 6. I asked Malerie how Violet’s son responded to the new family members. She said a 13-year-old boy was the first to be brought in. The first morning they checked in the bedroom and although both the 12-year-old son and the 13-year-old had their own bunk beds, they were curled up together in one bunk having spent the night giggling together.
Malerie’s leadership took a sharp learning curve when she returned to Africa in September after a hiatus in the States to continue her schooling. Violet had been left in charge of the construction but in Africa women don’t have the status to be taken seriously. The men had taken over, everything had fallen apart and Violet didn’t know what to do. Malerie was shocked to see the state everything was in. But she’s a natural leader and knew blame wouldn’t accomplish anything. She set out to discover, with Violet, what they could learn and what systems had to be in place to support Violet in the future.
For awhile, the chaos seemed like it would engulf them. They had to deal with a corrupt government making demands for standards well above what was considered normal in the area. There were challenges with the people doing the construction and the social welfare people. If something could go wrong, it did. There were many times when Malerie didn’t feel at all strong and just wanted to go home. “I’ve never worked so hard, physically and mentally, in my life,” she said. She did think about quitting but told herself that if she did she’d just be walking away. “If I stayed and did my best,” she told herself, “and it didn’t come out as well as I’d hoped, at least I’d know I’d given it my all and I could live with it not being perfect. I learned a lot of patience. It was a very humbling experience.” In October her mentor and COCC instructor, Marlena Bellavia, hopped on a plane to assist with the bureaucratic nightmare and helped smooth out the hurdles. A month later, another COCC student, Katelynn Kanoff took over the reins and helped with the finishing touches for the opening of the first VIMA LUPWA HOME in December 2006.
What does the future hold? Malerie is continuing her schooling in between her trips to Zambia. She’s waiting to make sure the first home is solid before she expands to another home. Her original plan had been to become a social worker but now she’s leaning toward medicine because it’s a greater need than social work. In a population of about 11 million people, there are only about 600 doctors. As I spoke with Malerie, I was struck by the generosity and commitment of her spirit. I see her as a leader who will make a difference over the years in Africa. If she goes into medicine, she’ll soon be training others to do what they can to spread health. For example, she’s already held tooth-brushing clinics! I predict that you’ll be reading about this woman someday, maybe watching her on TV as she addresses the UN or other influential groups. And, as you watch Malerie Pratt shine her light on the world, you will have the warm satisfaction in your heart of knowing that, as part of the Network of Entrepreneurial Women, you believed in her when she wasn’t yet famous and you got the chance to hear her speak and share her passion and inspiration.
When the NEW Board met this summer for our annual retreat, we decided that we wanted to be able to support women who were actively empowering others in this world. Last year we’d had a fundraiser for the Women’s Resource Center. This year we decided that rather than do another fundraiser, we would create an annual award to be given to a woman who is actively engaged in empowering women. We call this the Leadership in Action award. We were so impressed by what Malerie was doing that we chose her to receive this award. We waited until now to make the presentation because Malerie has just returned from Africa. Malerie and future recipients of the award, will receive a one-year membership to our organization, a write up in our newsletter, a physical award (still in design phase) and a listing on our website, with a link to her own website for those who want to be able to support her work financially.