It’s odd that the word “compassion” is practically not in Patricia Korver-Kicak’s vocabulary. The Alexandria product and T.C. Williams High School grad works with HIV-positive mothers and children in Kenya, homeless kids in Eastern Europe and drought-stricken tribes in Africa. But, in her words, “I was never one of the do-gooders.”
She adds, “I just did it. I had no preconception of ‘Let me help the people.’ It’s a logical thing to do. This needs to be done, so you do it.”
If only more of the world had such obvious common sense.
Korver-Kicak founded ChildsLife International in 1996, drawing on her experience with the American and International Red Cross, and the group appears to have had a profound impact on thousands of children and mothers who were down and nearly out. She was back in Alexandria the other day on a couple of missions: to see her family members, who are still here, and to begin setting up shop in the United States for the first time to raise money expand her missions.
Here is Korver-Kicak discussing how her upbringing in Northern Virginia led her to international charity work, and why she recently returned to town:
ChildsLife has one of its main bases of operations in Kibera, a gigantic slum in Nairobi with a population variously estimated from 200,000 to more than 1 million. Korver-Kicak wanted to start and support programs that made a direct difference in people’s lives, but that weren’t infinite lines of support that created dependence.
So in Kibera, ChildsLife operates a business training program for HIV-positive mothers, that not only provides the drugs to help restore their health, but gives them the motivation and support to enable them to move on. “We’re the only organization that makes micro loans to HIV mothers,” Korver-Kicak said. She also established a school in Nairobi to feed and care for children whose parents have died of AIDS complications.
Last year, ChildsLife also opened a vocational school in Kibera to provide training for Kenyan teenagers, and also helped provide food and a sustainable water supply for the Maasai tribe.
In Romania, ChildsLife has established after-school programs for children who are released from school at noon, and helps new mothers through the months after birth, preventing the abandonment of more children. In Moldova, ChildsLife locates and provides food, clothing, teaching materials and furniture to orphanages and other child-oriented institutions. It also does so for children in Romania.
The programs are designed to work alongside and in partnership with organizations founded locally, and be able to stay long enough to make them work. “Sometimes to make a project independent you need to stop your support but stay in the distance to see if help is needed,” Korver-Kicak said.
The oldest of three children, Korver-Kicak grew up in Old Town, attended Douglas MacArthur Elementary School, Duke Street School for eighth grade and then was in the first graduating class of T.C. Williams. In the summers, she worked with African American kids and watched white people treat them with mistrust.
“Why are white people so mean?” she said the children sometimes asked her.
She earned a bachelor’s degree from Virginia Commonwealth University and a master’s from George Washington University, and began working in the Federal Energy Office in the mid-1970s, the precursor to the Department of Energy. She learned how the media worked, how government worked, and after stints at the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Red Cross, how charities and their projects worked.
At the International Red Cross, she dealt with famine in Africa, and learned about marketing and fundraising while working in 45 countries. She learned what projects worked and what didn’t. In Namibia, she helped set up a fully secure parking lot on a vacant lot, and used the profits to establish a school.
After two years as a top officer with Habitat for Humanity, she married in 1996 and moved to her husband’s home in the Netherlands. It was there that she started ChildsLife, returning to countries and programs she had known before and raising money from European sources.
Wherever she launches, “I’m still asking the same questions. If you want to make it work, you’ve got to listen to what people need.”
Christie Phillips, a consultant for ChildsLife, said she had just returned from Kenya. “You can see the impact of ChildsLife’s work when you visit the schools,” she said, “and see the children working on their studies and know that the education those children receive is an opportunity for a better life. For many of the children, the meals that they get at school are the only food that they will receive all day.”
Phillips also spoke with women enrolled in the HIV program in Kibera. “Before they joined the program they felt alone with no one to talk to, and even coming to the first class was stressful,” Phillips said. “But in the program they talk openly with others who are HIV positive to share ideas, tips and experiences and understand how to live with the disease. Women who graduate from the program receive a micro loan that helps them create a business that can provide enough income to sustain their family.”
Last year, Korver-Kicak established ChildsLife as a nonprofit 501(c)3 charity in the United States. She is beginning to establish a staff here and wants to begin fundraising to expand her programs to help children in the Ukraine, Moldova and Macedonia, as well as in Tanzania, Uganda and Kenya.
As always, the idea is to give the most needed help, directly, and plant a lasting seed. “That’s the whole basis of ChildsLife,” Korver-Kicak said. “I’ll help people. But at some point, they have to take care of themselves. We’ll do what it takes in order to get them to move on. Sometimes you just need some help, but you don’t need a life sentence of charity.”
For more information on how you can help, go to childslife.org.