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Alpharetta family relocates to Africa to serve poor children, Heart for Africa | Community Spirit

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Alpharetta family relocates to Africa to serve poor children, Heart for Africa
Alpharetta family relocates to Africa to serve poor children, Heart for Africa

ALPHARETTA, Ga. -- Janine Maxwell brings hope to people.  That is what she has been doing for the past six years, and the objective of her nonprofit aid organization, Heart for Africa –to deliver hope to the poor and vulnerable.

But the marketing exec turned humanitarian, professes that she struggled with living in Alpharetta—the affluent and picturesque community, she, husband Ian and two children (daughter Chloe –now 16, son Spencer –now 18) relocated to from Canada, in order to raise awareness and support for the organization.    

 “Beautiful but very different,” she best summarizes it, Maxwell felt uprooted trading the securities of her CEO-standard, Canadian lifestyle –and free healthcare, for the South; however it was a move that was both necessary and favorable.

The vision to create Heart for Africa (Hunger, Orphans, Poverty, Education) was born from Maxwell’s altering experience of 9/11.  As the owner of ONYX, one of Canada’s largest marketing firms, she was in New York with clients when the terror events unfolded. Trying to run from the horrific attack, she ran for 64 blocks, in her Adrienne Vittadini shoes, searching for a safe place to sleep the night. Depressed and searching for purpose, she encountered a former classmate years later, whose career concentrated on documenting street children in Africa. Instinctively and unprepared, Maxwell volunteered to join his next mission trip, Lusaka, Zambia.

In Lusaka at the time, 75,000 homeless children as young as 6-years-old, made the disease-infested, streets of the slum their home –a phenomenon consciously unsettling to Maxwell.  The street children included those who were orphaned by guardians lost to AIDS, children abandoned by caregivers unable to feed them, and vulnerable children who left abusive homes in search of a more peaceful existence.

Far from any defining facet of peace though, Maxwell witnessed them –by the thousands- sleeping encased in trash to stay warm, scavenging for rotten food from garbage bins, prostituting for bread, sniffing bostik (gasoline and glue) to stave off hunger and reality; and enduring rape almost daily from other children.  

Immediately moved, she began volunteering with the children, serving on missions to rescue those with the most desperate needs.  Very soon, she was unable to find contentment in returning to the world she once knew, or in holding on to her corporate title.  Disregarding the roster of powerful corporations her marketing agency catered to, including Kellogg’s, Disney, Coca-Cola…she closed the doors of ONYX permanently in 2004, established Heart for Africa to serve children in Swaziland, and followed a “call” to relocate to Alpharetta.  In Alpharetta, she penned two books, which delivered the realities of street children to the world –and earned endorsement from Bill Clinton: “Its Not Ok With Me,” and “Is It Ok With You?”

Of all of the decisions, the insistent tug towards Alpharetta, was the hardest for her to follow without intense questioning.

Maxwell says that it was God throwing a loop, but reflects that it was exactly where they [her family] were supposed to go.  

“My mentor [Bruce Wilkinson] was from Cumming and we needed to go where we could get plugged in with people who could help. We needed to set up a board -we still did not have one”

Since relocating in 2006, Maxwell and her husband have taken 5,300 people on mission trips with Heart for Africa. One of the first groups came from North Point Community Church, Maxwell’ church home, where she says she found some of the “nicest people in the world, real southern kind of nice.” Groups over the years have come from many churches, including Cascade; and have included family members of the civil-rights leaders, Andrew Young and Joseph Lowery.  

Heart for Africa also was able to establish partnership with TOMS Shoes for distribution of new shoes to all children served through the nonprofit; and expanded to include Project Canaan: a self-sustaining income, farming, and education project in Swaziland; and the El Roi Baby Home for abandoned babies.

“I’ve met so many great people,” Maxwell said. “We couldn’t have done it without them.” But there is less cheer in her expression that the enviable suburb still felt like a separation from Africa and her other children.

Children in this case referring to Swazi babies orphaned or “dumped.” 

Baby dumping is a reality in Swaziland, as is the abject poverty that runs deep through the impoverished —yet peaceful nation.  It is estimated that more than half of the total population are orphaned or vulnerable children.  The plight is exacerbated by a 70 percent unemployment rate, a 42 percent HIV/AIDS rate, and perpetuation of the destructive myth that sex with a virgin {often a child} is cure for the AIDS virus.  Commonly babies are found in latrines, where young, afraid mothers, too poor for hospitals; or victims of rape – give birth.

And quite separate from Lusaka, Swaziland has no slums or dumps.  A nation too poor for the amenities of “urban poverty,” like slums, Swaziland instead is comprised of homesteads –family units of up to 20 or 30 members living in one small shelter.  And the occupants (mostly children -due to the scourge of AIDS, which has claimed most adults), struggle to maintain the most basic existence.

“Everywhere you go, there are kids,” Maxwell said.  “It’s just children. Every single person has lost someone to AIDS. Death has wiped out the very life and vibrancy that once filled those homes and the hearts of the people who have been left behind.” 

These are the children Maxwell promised to never forget, even in the comforts and confines of suburbia, where the routine tasks of daily living, become glaring distractions.

“What is that saying?” she pondered. “The only thing that evil needs is for good people to do nothing.”

Last year Maxwell and her family decided it was time to leave Alpharetta.  On May 31, 2012, they boarded a plane destined for South Africa. Maxwell says that it was really no big deal.

A post from her blog last year read: “Since I first stepped on African soil in Zambia April 2003, I have longed to go and live with the people who I came to love so quickly.  Meeting young children who live and die on the streets or those who have been orphaned by AIDS, has changed my life.  Meeting the women who try to care for their own children and those who have been left behind by friends and family has brought me to my knees over and over again.  As a family we have worked tirelessly to serve the Lord while helping those in need, but it is hard to do that from North America.  We have now been released to move to Swaziland and begin a new chapter in the life of the Maxwell family.”

Remotely any question, Africa has been long-time coming.  Maxwell’s children know many of the children who have been rescued. They have been present at several rescues, and worry whenever something happens to any of them. (Spencer recently calculated that he has been in in Africa for 70 weeks since he was ten-years-old.)

Days before moving, Maxwell sat in her airy Alpharetta kitchen, marinating meat for Spencer’s 18th birthday party the next day, with the house half-packed and still unsold. The move did not come without a share of difficulties.

The family cat died around this time from a sudden heart attack; the other cat was given to a family friend, which Maxwell cried an entire morning over.  Despite her work, which at times seems to be supernatural, she still has tackled with super-human concerns.  She debated what to do about her mother still in Canada, who is afflicted with dementia, causing her to be increasingly mean; and what to do about international health insurance that her family had still been unable to secure for Africa; and of course Chloe needed makeup before going –and then there were the constant phone calls about other children.

An eternal optimist, she gave one answer for everything: “God has perfectly prepared us.”

With the country and continent she loves now home, and though there is not water, doors with keys, electrical outlets in the bathrooms or electricity still; Maxwell says that she feels as though she has won the lottery.

Her blog, now renamed, “Live from Swaziland…it’s Saturday morning,” gives regular updates on her Swaziland exodus, and on the progress and setbacks occuring daily now that she and her family are there.  

Shortly after arriving, a baby was found in a bag, in a tree, and taken to the hospital.  After several exhaustive discussions and paperwork, Maxwell was able to take the baby to the El Roi Baby Home.  Another baby, hospitalized in the same facility for weeks while police sought his teenage mother for abandonment, was also rescued. Maxwell also committed to accept the baby of a 16-year-old, HIV-positive mother pregnant with her third child, in August.

How does Mawell’s feel about the urgent and consuming problems plaguing Swaziland, seemingly with no foreseeable end or solution?

“This is an investment over time. Working in Africa is really hard.  You have to have some sort of faith, otherwise you’d never do it.  It’s too hard. It cost too much money.  The only reason you do it is because of the feeling that a higher power wants you to. If you look at the guy named Jesus, and just follow his example, the whole world would change.  When people were hungry, he fed them. When people were naked, he clothed them. He was an encourager. It’s not complicated.”

She frequently references the book of Matthew, which speaks of visiting the sick and imprisoned. To her, the idea of “prison,” does not have to exist in a literal definition.  Prison is the grandmother with a dozen kids she has to watch, and try to earn income to feed them.  It is a prison because she has no option and cannot leave.

 “If we visit her and bring food for her grandchildren, she is just happy we came. The food is a bonus. Never underestimate the value of one visit,” Maxwell said.  The phenomenon of hope encourages Maxwell to continue.

“Without hope, we have nothing.”  That is her mantra.


To follow Janine Maxwell’s journey in Africa, read blog updates here: janinemaxwell.blogspot.com/                  

To donate to Heart for Africa or for Mission Trips: heartforafrica.org                                                                   

Janine Maxwell’s Books: www.isitokaywithyou.com

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