Discovering Dignity in Empowerment
Gaston Warner, CEO of ZOE
Mr. Webster defines dignity as “the quality or state of being worthy, honored, or esteemed.” The Bible defines human dignity as being created in the image of God (Genesis 1:26). This simple but profound statement is at the heart of ZOE’s empowerment model.
What is the image you associate with orphans in Africa? Or vulnerable children anywhere on the planet? We have all seen the photos or videos of dirty, diseased children with distended bellies from malnutrition, foraging for food in a pile of trash. These images are often used to move us into giving to support these children. The message is clear, “If you do not give, this child will die because they have no way to help themselves.” Seeing the physical ravages of hunger and disease is troubling to us, but what I think strikes at the very core of our being is seeing another human being, especially a child, so utterly devoid of dignity.
ZOE’s empowerment model seeks to build up the entire person so that they can grow into all that God desires for them. Our message is not that a vulnerable child will die without your intervention, although in some cases that may be true. Rather, we emphasize that with your partnership, these children can begin taking steps to support themselves and their siblings without the need for charity. ZOE supporters, who partner with groups of children in ZOE’s program over their three-year journey, are first introduced to desperate children who often feel sub-human. However, over the course of the empowerment program, supporters begin to see these children grow in faith, health, confidence, and skills as they pull themselves out of poverty and stand on their own. They then hear these young men and women say with dignity that ZOE’s assistance should be given to other children in even greater need. Almost half the children in ZOE’s empowerment program will voluntarily make such a statement after just two years in the program, and nearly all of them are fully self-sufficient after year three.
Building an individual’s dignity is difficult. It cannot be achieved simply by implementing a program. So how does ZOE do it? The empowerment model calls for interventions in food security, housing, health and disease prevention, small business training, education, vocational training, faith development, child rights, community participation and other areas. However, it is not just about the pillars of the program, but rather how ZOE’s staff implements these core pieces. It is these interactions that build dignity and transform how a person feels about himself or herself.
When ZOE’s program facilitators welcome the children to the first meeting, they speak gently to them. They place their hand on the shoulder or head of a child whose parents are no longer with them and who have only been touched by abuse for years. The members of a working group (60-100 children that make up a supportive community for each other) are encouraged to listen to one another’s stories and begin to dream together of a better future. When children receive small inputs from ZOE, they then assist each other in mastering skills and doing the hard work of planting, caring for animals, and starting small businesses. In all these ways, the children receive resources from ZOE and then share them with others, so that they are giving and receiving at the same time.
If you ever go on a ZOE Trip and pull up to a village, you can immediately identify the children that are in the ZOE program. They are not pressing around the bus with their hands out, wearing dirty clothes. Instead, they are standing tall and straight with clean clothes and bodies and heads held high. They have smiles shining from their faces and make eye contact with their guests. They are quite obviously children who possess something very precious – dignity.