April 26th, 2012

There is more of a story behind Mama Hope’s most recent Stop the Pity video, “African men. Hollywood stereotypes”, then the public knows. It is true that the men featured in the film came to us after seeing “Alex Presents Commando” and wanted to make their own video poking fun at Hollywood stereotypes of African men. But what the public does not know is that one of the men in the film, Benard, inspired the creation of Mama Hope.

Here is a bit more of that story…

Late one night in September of 2002, my mother was watching TV and was struck by a commercial. It was one of those commercials where they showed  children who are orphans and asked for your sponsorship. Most people change the channel but my mother was moved to help and immediately signed up to sponsor an orphan.  A few weeks later, she received a letter with a picture of Benard, a 12 year old boy from Kakemega, Kenya. He was wearing a blue school uniform and an awkward smile. She took that picture out and proudly put it in a silver frame on her mantle right next to a matching silver frame with a picture of me.  She now had two children.

Immediately, they started writing letters back and forth and soon created a wonderful friendship.  My mother learned about his love of Manchester United, the fact that he wanted to be a pilot and the names of his best friends in school.  He learned that my mother dreamed of being a writer, she loved to Salsa dance and that he had an American sister named Nyla. They would sign letters “love, your son Benard/love, your mother Stephanie”. When I would call my her she would give me the update about Benard-” …he is struggling in Swahili but acing Biology. ”  As the years passed, their relationship deepened and even though he lived across the world he became a part of our small family.

When my mom was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2005 the dream that kept her fighting was that once she beat cancer we would go to Kenya to meet Benard. Late during those sleepless nights, we would hold hands and we would imagine this trip to meet my brother. On January 2nd, 2006 my mother passed away and after weeks of grieving I boarded a plane to Kenya to fulfill her dream and meet Benard. I felt an overwhelming urgency to introduce myself and tell him in person that he was greatly loved by my mother and that I was his sister and now we would care for each other.

When I saw Bernard for the first time he was a quiet, shy, 16 year old boy who could not look me in the eyes. In his hand he held a copy of my favorite picture of my beautiful mother. The same one I kept in a frame on my bookcase because in it she is laughing and whenever I saw it made me smile. In this moment however it made me sob and this made him cry as well. Benard had already lost his biological mother and father and now we shared in the loss of our mother.

Then it dawned on me,  I had never had a little brother before. I was an only child raised by a single mother and the day my mother passed I had never felt so alone. I felt like my whole family had been taken from me. Meeting Benard brought me hope because I was not alone in my loss and we had each other to get us through the sadness. That night I promised him, as my mother had promised me, that if he worked hard in high school I would do everything I could to help him go to college. We ended the night, stargazing and talking about the mysterious ways of the world.  We knew that wherever my mother was she was smiling down proudly on her children.

Since then, every time I visit Kenya, I get to see Benard. I have watched him grow, finish High School and make the decision to become a Clinical officer. We no longer send hand written letters to each other but instead send email and Facebook messages. He tags me in the pictures that he wants me to see or posts announcing he has aced his exams or won his rugby match.  He is overcoming all the challenges the world put against him and continuously inspiring me!

People might take one look at a picture of us together and call this post a “white savior” story but the truth is Benard saved me.  Meeting him inspired me to create a meaningful organization that I am completely passionate about.  He also saved me by becoming my family at a time I felt so alone and forsaken. Watching how hard he has worked to become the man he is today inspires me and shows me the true potential and progress that is possible.  It shows me that when people care enough to connect, give and love each other despite everything telling them not to, they can truly change the world.   This is what I learned from my mother.  This is what Benard teaches me.  And I hope it is what you take away from this post.

I often look at that first picture my mother got in the mail of Benard and I think of her putting it in the silver frame. I think about how life is painful and unpredictable but connects us in the weirdest ways if we rise to the opportunity.

Now on my bookcase, next to the beautiful picture of my mother laughing, I have a new picture.  It is of me and Benard. In it he is a man and we are surrounded by his best friends from school and every time I see it, it makes me smile.

Click here to get involved with Mama Hope and donate to our newest campaign: Build the future: $50k in 50 days.

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