UMC Featured News & Stories

Teens fund seeds of hope for young victims of AIDS

Harrison Smith (from left), William Graebe, and Pierce Fussell hold pillows
made from treasured t-shirts. UMNS photos by Heidi Robinson.

By Heidi Robinson*
June 4, 2009 | WINSTON SALEM, N.C. (UMNS)

Spring showers pelt the church parking lot. But inside Soapstone United Methodist Church, it is raining money.

Middle and high school students, along with adult volunteers, pack a large church conference room where a cottage industry triumphs during an economic downturn.

William Graebe, 16, calls across the room, “Hey man, can you throw me a pillow form?”

The young entrepreneurs gathered at the church have actually thrown themselves and their talents into a successful business operation and are turning a profit.

“Here’s how it works,” explains Caitlin Fanning, a high school junior. “The congregation brings in a T-shirt they love, maybe it’s from a sports team, an event, or place they visited. They pay us. And, we turn their T-shirt into a pillow.”

However, there are no plans to use the profits for pizza or new phones. All the money they earn stitching and seaming is earmarked to mend the lives of AIDS orphans in Africa through ZOE Ministry’s Giving Hope Seed Grant Project.

Caitlin Fanning sews a pillow cover.

“Whatever I can do to help children who have lost their parents, I’m in,” says Pierce Fussell, a high-school student.

The pillow business is one of seven start-ups created in response to the Giving Hope Seed Grant Project program created by North Carolina-based ZOE Ministry, an organization committed to helping AIDS orphans in several African nations become self-sufficient. In fact, the title of the organization expresses what they hope to offer the children they serve: ZOE means “life” in Greek.

“We have supporters across the country, and we hope to expand the Giving Hope Seed Grant Project to our friends in other states,” explains Graebe.

The need for ZOE Ministry’s work has grown greater with each year since the organization’s start in 2004. By some estimates, the AIDS pandemic on the African continent claims 6,000 lives each day, leaving scores of children as heads of household.

“We wanted to give youth in the United States a chance to learn about the ZOE Ministry empowerment program in a hands-on way,” says Susan Graebe, assistant director of ZOE Ministry. “We developed our Giving Hope Seed Grant Project for two reasons: One, so youth in the United States could have an opportunity to impact the lives of AIDS orphans and two, so teens here can experience what children in our program in Africa actually go through when they receive their grants.”

At this makeshift business site, teens and parents operate cutting tables, sewing stations and a stuffing area, turning out almost 200 pillows.

“I cannot believe we’ve raised more than $2,000!” exclaims a high-school sophomore as she cuts a T-shirt in a pillow pattern.

The Raleigh enterprise, like the other teen-led businesses in North Carolina, started with a $100 grant from ZOE Ministry and the Giving Hope Seed Grant Project.

“We gave each of the youth groups the same $100 seed money grant we offer to orphan family groups in Africa to start their businesses,” explains Graebe.

“The difference is that these North Carolina kids are using their businesses and profits to help buy garden seeds for AIDS orphans on the other side of the world…kids they may never see.”

Health officials say that by the year 2010 there may be as many as 20 million AIDS orphans in Africa. Left to fend for themselves, orphans face a multitude of dangers ranging from hunger to sexual exploitation. ZOE Ministry, led by the Rev. Greg Jenks, stepped into the gap left when traditional family units collapsed with the loss of parents.

With the help of the North Carolina Annual Conference and many volunteers, Jenks began financial empowerment programs that now help thousands of child-headed family groups in Kenya and Rwanda become self-sufficient. An African woman developed the model for the program for ZOE Ministry and in two to three years, orphans in the program learn to grow their own food, then to grow their own businesses.

“It takes about $300 to fund a family group in the program for a year,” explains Graebe. “The average family is made up of five children, working together to survive. The funds these North Carolina kids raise will help buy garden seeds, malaria nets. It will help purchase farm animals and it may even help buy sewing machines so children in Africa can start their own sewing businesses.”

“When we heard about what is happening in Africa…we wanted to do something to help,” says Jessica Rea (left) holding a finished pillow with Ryan Hoffman.

ZOE Ministries also offers help and relief to AIDS orphans in Zimbabwe and Zambia.

“People don’t realize what is happening in the world,” says 15-year old Jessica Rea. “When we heard about what is happening in Africa, we wanted to do something to help,” a sentiment echoed in the efforts of youth groups around North Carolina.

“We’re helping families rebuild what they thought they’d lost,” calls a tall teenager as she tapes a box full of T-shirts at Philadelphia United Methodist Church outside Charlotte, N.C.

The Philadelphia United Methodist Church Youth raised nearly $2,500 with a variety of business ventures including selling, packaging, and shipping T-shirts for ZOE Ministry.

In Wilmington, youth groups raised money with activities such as a car show and music concert at Pine Valley United Methodist Church and bookmarks and sponsorships at Harbour United Methodist Church.

On behalf of ZOE, youth in Mebane bartered one of their most precious commodities to raise money: free time. They hope to raise money with a talent auction, selling blocks of time for baby-sitting, yard work and other skilled labor.

At Christ Community United Methodist Church in Clayton, youth developed car art, inspired by forgotten fast food bags, to sell. In Wilson, youth from First United Methodist Church planned a series of businesses opportunities that include two meals, sponsorship for animals and a sale of handcrafted items that they hope will net $4,000.

In all, the Seeds for Hope program could raise $10,000. The project could expand to include help from youth groups in other states.

“Now, we have other churches and groups requesting opportunities to participate,” says Graebe. “We are developing curriculum that organizations can use for a variety of purposes, from vacation Bible school to high school.”

One of the young entrepreneurs and pillow makers explains the success and passion behind the teen-run businesses.

“When it’s not about making money, when it’s about making the world a better place, I think you will get a much better return than you can ever expect,” says William Graebe.

*Robinson is a freelance producer based near Cleveland, Tenn.

News media contact: Fran Coode Walsh, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5458 or

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