Amanda Dye had a choice to make.
The William Jewell College senior could choose to stay in Liberty to complete coursework for a class in ethics.
Or she could choose to fly to Zambia to save a 5-year-old boy dying of starvation.
Anyone who knows Dye could have predicted her choice. She chose to go to Zambia to retrieve Elton, who’s now thriving after receiving treatment at Children’s Mercy for severe malnutrition.
As a consequence of her choice, Dye’s ethics professor gave her a failing grade for the semester.
The irony of failing ethics to save a life isn’t lost on the twenty-six-year-old Dye, who has a history of choosing to do what’s needed rather than what’s easy.
It all started in 2007 when, after several trips to Africa, Dye made the hardest choice of all: to start an orphanage and school for kids in need in the African country of Zambia. Today, the full-time college student is the legal guardian of 21 orphans, with more coming to her facility’s doorstep in Africa every day.
“I think what most people don’t understand about the situation for an African kid is exactly how desperate it is. How could things really be that bad?” says Dye, who cradles a shy but wide-eyed Elton at a local diner as she talks.
“But the other thing people don’t understand is how solvable the situation is. We know the cure for malnutrition. It’s food. It’s not complex. And it’s right here in front of us,” says an impassioned Dye.
From a young age Dye demonstrated an outsized ability to see the difference between what is and what should be. At just 19, she made her first trip to Africa where she saw starvation, corrupt regimes and ineffective systems. She saw her suggestions for small improvements affecting big outcomes, and she was hooked.
“The 8-year-olds on the street today in Zambia will be 18 in 10 years. We can change history in just one generation if we do it right,” says Dye, who insists that lasting change can be achieved by providing help in just four areas to even a handful of kids.
“While an orphanage sounds ‘cute,’ what we’re really talking about is more than that–it’s a global, political movement. If we can equip even a few kids with education, health care, basic human rights and personal security, they’re going to make a big difference. If you give these kids even half a chance, they take it and run,” reasons Dye.
Insisting on quality of care over quantity, Dye provides for her 21 kids’ nutritional, educational and security needs round-the-clock. She works on her college studies and exams between phone calls and flights to Africa, fundraising efforts for her Energy of Hope organization, and continuing medical treatment and mothering for Elton, who now lives with her full-time.
One can’t help but ask the 4-foot-9-inch, soft-spoken non-profit leadership major the obvious question. Many of us know about the heartbreak in Africa, but what made her think she could do something about it?
“I didn’t know if I could do anything about it when I started,” admits Dye. “I was just trying something out, and I wouldn’t even accept donations until I knew I had a viable program.”
That meant Dye waitressed, worked customer service jobs, cleaned houses, babysat kids and even drew caricatures for folks on the Country Club Plaza in order to fund her vision.
Asked if she’s ever felt fearful, Dye answers “yes” unequivocally. “The first time I went to Africa completely alone,” says the blond-haired, blue-eyed Dye, “I was so scared that my knees locked up. I couldn’t get up from my seat in the terminal to board the plane,” she recalls. “I prayed to God for some sign, anything. And right then they called my name over the loudspeaker at KCI. Can you believe it?” she laughs. “That’s when I said, ‘Okay, God, I’ll go.'”
After several trips to Africa, Dye set her sights on purchasing a structure on the outskirts of a Zambian village, one nestled in a valley and near a river where the teachers and kids could learn to grow their own food.
She laughs now when she looks back at negotiating to buy the three-bedroom house that would become her orphanage. “I didn’t know what I was doing. I haggled the seller down from charging what I thought was 900 dollars per month in rent to 400 dollars. When I walked away the translator asked me if I knew what I had just done. Apparently I had committed to 400,000 kwacha per month (the Zambian currency). “My stomach dropped,” she says sheepishly.
“But,” Dye grins, “thank goodness that converted to 122 U.S. dollars.”
And while her monthly rent now rises and falls with exchange rates and the Zambian-powers-that-be, Dye’s orphanage thrives. Boys and girls have separate sleeping quarters and bathrooms, and all the kids share a huge dining room, living room and kitchen. Each child has a bunk bed and school uniform.
Just $30 buys 100 meals for kids at the facility. The kids get to eat three meals per day–a rarity in a country where 80 percent of its inhabitants live on less than two dollars per day.
But for every cared-for child inside the orphanage, there are many more uncared for kids still on the outside. In Dye’s small village alone, there are 130 kids roaming the streets. With her current resources and a commitment to quality over quantity care, she can’t take them in yet. “Every night that they’re out there it hurts,” she says.
But several months ago when the widows of the village laid Elton at her doorstep, Dye made an exception. The starving youngster weighed just 25 pounds, was breathing intermittently and was already taken for dead by flies that had started to feast on his flesh. To save him, Dye had no choice but to bring him to Kansas City for medical treatment.
Two months later Elton is doing well. Extensive dental work means he can chew food again, an ability nearly lost when his starving body began stealing the calcium from his teeth. Eating still takes longer for Elton as his digestive system relearns how to absorb nutrients.
He snuggles against Dye during our interview at a restaurant, listening to her talk about his homeland and waiting patiently for the server to deliver his dinner. It’s a dinner that he and Dye will split between them, since both are careful not to waste food.
Dye remembers the first time she took Elton to a restaurant and he saw uneaten food being thrown away. “He was crying, so upset,” she recalls. “Even though he’s just 5, he remembers his friends at home who are dying because they have nothing to eat. He wanted to give them the uneaten food.”
Dye says that William Jewell College has stretched as much as it can to accommodate her work with Energy of Hope. She’s now focused on studying hard to complete her degree, although there’s no doubt her thoughts are never far from her kids in Africa.
“It’s possible to fix this,” she says, as she watches Elton nibble away at a fried chicken finger. “If there’s anything that upsets me, it’s that the solution to all this is right here and people can’t see it.”
To donate or find out more about Amanda and her kids, go to energyofhope.org.
words: Cisley Thummel