“These kids have opened my heart. They have given me back more than I could ever give.”
Beyond the Orphanage began and grew because of the hearts, minds and skills of brilliant people like Dr Donna Helm-Yost.
The Arizona based educational psychologist has over twenty years experience working with children from kindergarten to young adults, “I’ve always been fascinated by people. How they think and why they do what they do. I especially love working with teenagers on learning issues and emotional challenges,” she says.
Donna’s other passion in life is yoga. She remembers, “there was one lady who had a yoga show on tv, I remember so clearly, I just started copying her and it all began from there. I reconnected with it in 2000 and later became a teacher. I find that the principles of psychology work very well with yoga, using breathing and poses to address fear and anxiety and to restore calm,” she says.
So how did she begin working with Beyond the Orphanage? “Serendipity!” she laughs.
In 2006 Donna founded her own charity called Karma Youth Project. Once a month, she taught a yoga workshop, and donated all of the proceeds to charity, “I was doing a little bit for a lot of different charities, but I felt I wanted to do something more, for just one,” she says, “I meditated about it and when I read something about Geoff Hucker’s work I thought, ‘I love this’ so I got in touch with him.”
That was way back in 2007 right at the beginning of Beyond the Orphanage. Donna remembers, “I ran a workshop, sent over the money and then I got a lovely email from Geoff saying he was so grateful. Soon after he asked if I would undertake a research project and I’ve been working on that since Jan 2008.”
As an educational psychologist, Donna works nine and a half months of the year. The rest of the time she spends travelling and volunteering, “In 2008, I was due to volunteer with a medical team in Cambodia. I got a call from the organisation to say they had too many people going to Cambodia and could I go to Ethiopia instead! With the change of arrangements, I had only a few days of my summer holidays when it would work, and what do you know? The dates fit!” Donna completed her work with the medical team and stayed on to meet the children from Beyond the Orphanage. What happened next? She says, “ I just fell in love. Some people ask me why I chose Africa? I say, I didn’t, it chose me.”
Since 2008, Donna has made regular trips to Beyond the Orphanage. She begins her work with a consultation from Head Social Worker Martha Kafato on the children’s needs at that time. Donna’s work begins with the children during their Saturday Sessions. The morning classes are run at the 24/7 Drop-In Centre near Addis Ababa. Donna leads workshops for the kids, guardians and staff on issues such as peer pressure, self-esteem, resilience as well as other topics relevant to the community.
She says, “I can’t be with them all the time but I can give them tools so they can deal with the challenges they face themselves.” After the session, Donna practices yoga with the group and then gets to work on an art project, which ties in with the rest of the morning’s theme. “What I love about Beyond the Orphanage is how it respects the childrens’ culture. It isn’t tied to any one religion so there’s no pressure on the children to be anyone other than who they are, spiritually, culturally, etc. Verbal expression isn’t the cultural norm for the children in Ethiopia so art is a brilliant way for them to open up and express themselves without having to say anything.”
The rest of Donna’s time involves visiting the kids at schools, speaking with their teachers to assess the kids’ needs academically, socially and emotionally. She also visits the kids and guardians at home.
She says, “all teenagers face a challenging time. They’re trying to find out who they are and to find their place in the world. They’re like caterpillars becoming butterflies, but it can be a very difficult process, but I’ve also seen some remarkable turnarounds.” Donna says, “I can’t take credit for what I do. These kids have opened my heart. They’ve given me back more than I could ever give.”
*Beyond the Orphanage thanks Dr Donna Helm-Yost for her work and for this interview.
On her most recent trip to Ethiopia to visit Beyond the Orphanage, photographer Kerry Pryor shares some of her photographs with us. She says there's nothing better than Ethiopian hospitality and we'd have to agree.
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