Hermosa nurse to build orphanage with help from fundraiser

Sarah Chapman is ready to embrace the world with healing hands and a heart of gold.

The Hermosa Beach nurse laughs easily while she offers hugs over handshakes, chats up passersby about everything from therapy dogs and coffee to mac and cheese recipes. She bubbles over with stories about beach cities residents and businesses lining up to help the nonprofit organization she established — Build a Better Benin.

It is a major cause, one that will take Chapman nearly 8,000 miles away from her home, her friends and her family to a small village in West Africa, where she will stay for an indeterminate amount of time.

While there, she will oversee a clinic, build an orphanage and provide a safe source of water for the children, and she will ensure that all three projects are sustainable by Africans long after she leaves.

Chapman will be surrounded by people who speak in the Fon tribal dialect and know a little bit of French. She speaks neither, save a few French phrases she's learned through iPad apps and the knowledge of how to say "thank you very much" in Fon.

By and large, her new neighbors are uneducated, illiterate and malnourished, but they have stolen her heart. So much so that she will trade indoor plumbing, a salary and electricity for an outdoor kitchen, volunteer status and an unreliable generator.

Chapman is on a love mission.

She leaves on a one-way ticket in July, and she won't come home until she's done.

Chapman's vision of a clinic, an orphanage and a well is huge, but so infectious that she has garnered support from friends and strangers alike to help her raise money to build the orphanage. The effort will culminate with a fundraiser that promised to be a night to remember for Chapman, a time to bid adieu to local friends and celebrate the nurse and nonprofit founder's future in Africa.

The Build A Better Benin fundraiser will be this Saturday, June 2, from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. at 68 Pier Avenue in Hermosa Beach at the former Sangria restaurant. There will be appetizers, cocktail specials, dancing and a silent auction.

"A lot of people in my neighborhood have been really generous. It's really amazing. People just genuinely want to help other people. They just don't have an outlet," Chapman said.

The woman securing silent auction items is a stranger who read about Chapman in a magazine. They won't meet until the night of the event.

Chapman's younger sister, Denise Collins, is not surprised by the community's response.

"Sarah always has some amazing idea, and she goes after it 100 percent," Collins said. "She has a really big heart and a really big imagination, and when she sees something she goes after it until it's delivered."

That gets people excited.

"She has a lot of people that want to come out and support her and help out and volunteer. It's really awesome because people have just come out of the woodwork," Collins said. "There could not be a more proud sister on the planet than I am of Sarah. I love this because she has single-handedly done this, completely unafraid, and blown forward. It's a testament to Sarah's heart that she's touched a lot of hearts and lives already, and they in turn want to help her. They see the passion in her."

Earlier this month, Chapman hosted a fundraiser in Northern California and raised enough money to cover the entire cost of a safe-water well for the children. She said that more than 200 seventh-grade students in San Jose-area schools want to pay for uniforms and books for 40 children in the orphanage.

"It's kids helping kids - I love that," Chapman said.

Chapman is grateful for the support, particularly considering most people don't know where Benin is, let alone the children and families she will be serving.

"Nobody's ever even heard of Benin. I tell people now and they're like - I don't even know where that is. Even if they've visited Africa a hundred times, they haven't been to Benin," Chapman said.

She didn't know Benin either until she visited three years ago.

Benin is a country of nine million people approximately the size of Pennsylvania, located just west of Nigeria. It is a slim sliver of a country with one major port and four airports, only one of them paved.

In Benin, multiple wives and sex slavery are common, and child mortality rates are so high that women expect half of their children to die. There is only one physician for every 100,000 people. While corruption exists in the bigger cities of Cotonou and Porto Novo, overall, the country lacks the religious, tribal and political unrest that plagues much of the African continent.

Chapman was first exposed to Benin during a two-week volunteer stint with Mercy Ships, an organization that provides surgeries up and down the West Coast of Africa. Chapman knew she would return the moment she stepped on Beninese soil.

"I fell, just fell in love. It changes your life. This is something I'd always wanted to do, and it felt really at home. It was weird. I got off of the plane, and I felt like I was home," Chapman said.

In fact, when talking about Benin, Chapman always refers to customs and cultures and politics using the word "we," as though she were talking about her native country.

Chapman said she has made three visits over the past three years, and on one of those visits she heard stories about 9- and 10-year-old children taking care of infants in the streets.

"I didn't believe it at first. I was like, really? That seems too dire," Chapman said.

So she asked her friend, a local man named Pastor Luke, to show her. He took her out onto the streets around midnight and she found many children living alone in the streets.

The pastor explained that many of them were children of women who had been sold into the sex trade. The women can be sold multiple times, and their children generally end up in the streets. Their fathers don't want them, their new "family" rejects them, and the genetic grandparents turn them out as "bastards." They have nowhere to turn.

That night, a young boy, completely naked and skinny from malnutrition, came up to her and pulled on her sleeve repeatedly, speaking to her in his tribal language. She assumed he was asking for money, and while she did not give him anything, the boy left an impression.

When she returned home, she asked Pastor Luke what he was saying. He didn't want food or money or clothes or shelter. He just wanted an education.

"He was telling me, 'Ma'am, please, I just want to go to school. I don't belong out here. I just want to go to school.' I was blown away with this boy," Chapman said.

Pastor Luke said it would only take $20 to give him an education for one year.

The next day, she found the boy a home with the principal of the local school, enrolled him and spent $20 dollars to cover the cost of his uniform and books. That boy's name is Condon, and his is the face she works so hard to save every day.

"That night I was thinking, 'I need to save like 40 Condons,' " Chapman said. "That kid could be the next president of Benin. You never know what he's going to do with his life now that he's not on the streets."

Condon's story inspired Chapman to build a home for some of these street children, the Maison de l'Espoir, or house of hope. They will live in groups of six to seven kids in huts with "house moms," girls who have escaped the sex trade, and attend the same school as Condon. For food, they will eat off of a sustainable rabbit farm at the orphanage.

The children will not be up for adoption, so it is really more of a home than an orphanage. They will receive food, shelter, safety, an education, and a lot of love from their American visionary.

Chapman would love to help all the children on the streets, but she recognizes the need to be realistic, and she would rather start small and start right than set the program up to fail.

"We'll start with 40 kids, because we can't start grandiose right off the bat. We just have to start somewhere. The need is so dire," Chapman said.

The town's mayor donated the land where the orphanage will be built after he bonded with Chapman when he found out she lived near Los Angeles. He was happy to share that he has a cousin living somewhere in L.A.

Chapman will oversee construction of the orphanage - the huts with outdoor kitchens which amount to a sink without plumbing and a fire pit, a study area, a communal dining area and a wall around the property to keep the kids safe.

After it is completed and running smoothly, Chapman will entrust two local partners to maintain it. Pastor Luke will work with a Jamaican-Canadian woman who lives in Benin and has her hands in several philanthropic projects. Chapman refers to the woman as her "black Mother Theresa" and will depend on her support while living there.

"I'm really big into sustainability. I won't start a project if it won't be sustainable once it's off the ground. It's all African-run," Chapman said.

In addition to the orphanage and the safe-water well for the children, Chapman will spend her time working at a clinic in central Benin. The clinic services 10 villages, but sees very few patients.

It is staffed by five people, including nurses and a midwife who need a lot of basic training due to a lack of education. There are problems with misdiagnosing and the child mortality rate is very high. Chapman said they also need to open their hearts.

Few people use the clinic, not because of the expense or remote location, or even the medical inconsistencies, but because the nurses do not want to help patients.

"A big problem I have is the staff's attitudes, so patients don't feel welcome, and so they don't come," Chapman said. "There's no love left at the clinic."

It is a natural attitude in a country that suffers from an unspoken caste system, one that is literally resulting in death for many residents. Several of the villagers would prefer to stay home or walk many miles to the nearest hospital, and they die along the way of exhaustion, dehydration and disease. The clinic needs more heart, Chapman said. It also needs a vehicle to transport people and supplies between the clinic, the hospital and the port, and Chapman will work to get one donated while she is there.

Chapman does not want to change the Beninese culture, but she does want to see the clinic staff be more compassionate about the human condition.

"I am so passionate about not changing a culture. My job is not to go in and westernize Africa. It's how to keep a culture strong and keep their roots strong, and me meld into that, but just try to show them that we need to love on these people more," Chapman said.

Chapman expects to lead by example, but admits she doesn't know if that will work. She also realizes that while the staff has embraced her on previous visits, they always knew she was leaving before. This time, without a return ticket, she could meet a little resistance.

Changing relationships without being viewed as changing a culture, that will be difficult, Chapman admits. That and isolation.

Chapman will be living without electricity, Internet, coffee shops or friends who speak English. It is true "National Geographic" village life, she said, dedicated to child-rearing and preparing food, and when the lights are out, she can feel very alone. She plans to read a lot, and visit the city once every three weeks to connect to the outside world via Internet.

Luckily, Chapman also has a very dedicated support system.

Chapman's boyfriend, Phil Blyth, will visit her for nearly a month at the end of August, and her sister will visit in the fall. They will bring much-needed conversation and helping hands.

Blyth will bring his talent in filming and photography to help communicate the work of Build A Better Benin to the outside world, while Collins will bring along her artist husband to paint a mural at the orphanage. They are impressed by Chapman's spirit and drive.

"I really find it amazing that there still are people out there that want to help other people. I could not be more supportive and more proud," said Blyth. "She's very caring and compassionate, and she's just one of those unique people that I consider myself very lucky to know."

Chapman's parents don't plan to visit, but they are very supportive of their daughter and will look after her beloved Golden Retriever while she is away.

Chapman said that she welcomes any individual interested in volunteering for the project or learning more about it to buy a ticket to Benin and visit her. She will provide housing, food and an education on life in Africa. For Chapman, it's all about finding your passion.

"I'm always taking volunteers. It started with me going for two weeks, and it's grown into this. If it can start so grassroots, I feel like I can invite anybody who wants to come and take care of them while they're there, because you never know what they might do with their lives," Chapman said. "It might not even be in Benin. It could be anywhere leaving a legacy."

Chapman is big on leaving legacies and feels Build a Better Benin is hers. She surprised herself a month and a half ago when she woke up one morning, resigned from her stable job in corporate nursing and decided to buy a one-way ticket.

"I had one of those movie moments where people quit their jobs and become dog walkers or something. I sat down at my computer, wrote my resignation letter, sent it the VP, and as soon as I hit send, I wanted to take it back," Chapman said. "I thought - I just quit my job. I'm not married. I don't have a sugar daddy. What did I just do? But then I realized there is no place in the world I would rather be right now."

Chapman does plan to return to the South Bay, but not until all the three projects are running smoothly. That could take six months, or it could take a couple of years. It all depends on the Beninese themselves.

While founding a nonprofit and moving to Benin is a huge undertaking, Chapman is hopeful that in time, her vision will grow and she will be able to touch the lives and hearts of many people.

"You never know. Maybe this could be the next Susan G. Komen Foundation," Chapman said with a hopeful smile.

For the impassioned and affable South Bay nurse, big dreams may be within reach, one step at a time, with a community driven to help.

The Build A Better Benin fundraiser will be Saturday, June 2, from 5:30 - 8:30 p.m. The event will take place at 68 Pier Avenue in Hermosa at the former Sangria restaurant. There will be appetizers, cocktail specials, dancing and a silent auction. Tickets are $40 dollars each and 100 percent of proceeds will go to build Maison de l'Espoir. Tickets are available for purchase at www.buildabetterbenin.org. The site also has photos, a link to donate and project updates.

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