Born and raised in Fayetteville, Sarah Fennel lights up when she talks about her family of two brothers and her wonderful parents.
“My parents are my rock and the source of my confidence,” she said. “Have you ever heard the quote, roots and wings?” she asked. “Roots and wings are two things parents want to give their children. Our parents did that for us. They gave us very secure roots to keep our feet on solid footing, instilling within us confidence, while encouraging us to get our own wings.”
Fennel, now 35, spread her wings, leaving Fayetteville to go the University of Texas in Austin, majoring in French. Friends and connections she made there would later cross her path to lead her to where she is today. Her dad owns Bordino’s Restaurant in Fayetteville, and Sarah helped her parents open Jose’s in Springdale. Graduating from Texas she returned to the restaurant business briefly before teaching French at Montessori.
“From the time I was very young I wanted to go to Africa,” she says. “I was well traveled, but nothing like going to Africa. In 2005 I decided it was time to go.”
After googling “volunteers in Africa,” she completed the paperwork and found herself on a plane going to South Africa alone. About an hour out of Cape Town she realized she didn’t exactly know where she was going. After she cleared customs she found a man holding a sign who looked like it might be her name, but it was different. Faithfully she went with him and survived. She spent the next four months living with people in the community. The group she was with was not very organized so she and the people she lived with designed their own volunteer program.
“I worked with hospice which was definitely life changing as I watched people my own age die”, she said. “So many people had HIV. The poverty was immense. I never realized what poor really meant until I lived among it. This was an emotionally intense experience.”
Fennel returned to the U.S., going back to Montessori.
“I had reverse culture shock,” she said.
She thought people didn’t really care, but soon found they really did care; they just didn’t know what she knew. When they became aware they wanted to help. One day one of her young students asked her what she was going to do about it. Rising to this innocent challenge she sent a flyer home for their parents to read and before the week was over she had a room full of supplies, more than she could afford to ship.
“This was 2006 and I knew there was something else I should be doing with my life,” she said, “but I just didn’t know what.”
People encouraged her to start a non-profit. During the time she debated the viability of starting a charitable organization she experienced a lot of anxiety; however once she committed to going forward the anxiety went away and that feeling has never returned. A local attorney helped her set up the 501(c)(3), donating his time. On Sept. 6, 2006 “Restore Humanity” became a viable 501(c)(3).
“This community was incredibly generous, continuing to donate items,” she said.
She quit Montessori and moved back in with her parents to focus on building the momentum and raising money for shipping costs. With an in-kind donation from a local trucking company the goods were shipped to Houston awaiting transport to Cape Town. Two days prior to shipping the South African government sent an email stating they would no longer accept used clothing, and any entering the country would be destroyed. Thankfully they were able to donate the goods to the Hurricane Katrina survivors in Houston. A crisis of the moment turned into something good as cash donations were able to supply the exact size and buy things specifically needed by hospice.
In 2007 she attended the wedding of one of her best friends in college who was from Kenya. She met his mother, brother and sister and told them about Restore Humanity. Three years passed, and she thought the next step might be Ethiopia.
“Even though our non-profit is not faith based, I personally believe God is behind every success,” said Sarah.
She prayed and the idea of Kenya popped into her head.
“The next day I received a phone call from the sister of my Kenyan friend. She asked me if I was going to help in Kenya. Wow!”
Flying into action, Fennel booked a ticket to Kenya within 24 hours of that phone call and spent the next five weeks with Mrs. Opot, her friend’s mother. She donated a building and Fennel returned to Fayetteville to raise funds to get the plans going. The building was finished in February 2009, but did not open until Aug. 2, 2010 as the board wanted to have sustainable funds available. Fennel reflected that the board was wise in the decision to postpone the opening.
“The last thing we wanted was to bring in children and not be able to sustain the transition in their lives. The oldest is 18, has graduated school and is attending the University in Nairobi,” she said.
She explained the children are full orphans and partial orphans. They try to keep families together so they have boys and girls. The children are not put up for adoption as the goal is to provide a real home setting supplying all of their needs. JCO Children’s Home is named after Mrs. Opot’s late husband, James Christopher Opot.
“There is no place like home. I want them to have a home as much like the one I grew up in as possible. Mrs. Opot is like a mother to me now,” Fennel said.
She is in Kenya three months out of the year. She goes to check on the progress of the work and to make sure the funds are being used efficiently, and to learn more about the culture and the needs. They have 11 staff. They work without running water or electricity. The manual labor is immense but there is little turnover as they have a mission of love and it also provides for them financially.
“I am complete,” she said of the effort. “I feel whole. I don’t know where I would be without this. This is the reason I get up in the morning. Whether it is a good day or a bad day, these people give me strength.”
When asked about the bullet point “Drop the Cape” on the mission statement, she said, “This reminds me and the board this mission is not about us. We are here to focus solely on the mission. If we are not careful it can turn into the Wests sweeping in to save the world, and we wind up patting ourselves on the back. This mission works because of the local Kenyan people working very hard to see these children are well taken care of. These people go through this kind of life every single day, and we can create drama if we focus on ourselves.”
Turning the subject specifically to women she was asked what advice she would give to other women.
“All women need to work on being kinder to ourselves,” she says. “Women tend to be so self-critical. We are wonderful and we don’t have to try to be like someone else because of societal pressures. Cultural pressure keeps women too self-critical.”
Mahatma Gandhi said, “Be the change that you want to see in the world.” Sarah Fennel chose to be that change.