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Posted on Sat. Sep. 26, 2009 - 03:00 am EDT

School days

Huntertown mission haven for disadvantaged Ethiopian students

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Ten students attend Heritage Mission school.

Abebech Tekle-Wold. Sewlanchi Tekle-Wold. Dirshaye Tekle-Wold. You might notice a pattern.

The girls are not sisters – at least not by blood. Seven of the students have the same legal guardians: Marta and Demi Tekle-Wold, who own Project Mercy, a mission in Fort Wayne that has brought children from Ethiopia to the United States to study at Heritage Mission. In addition to education, students receive boarding and a chance for a better life.

Annette Mains started teaching disadvantaged youths in her home 15 years ago, before founding Heritage Mission. She would pick up students from a low-income housing complex and drop them off after lessons.

“Disadvantaged children need a lot more time than traditional schools can give them,” Mains says. “It’s not the schools’ fault, but (disadvantaged students) need more.”

From Mains’ home, the school moved into a church, then to a commercial building at Dupont and Coldwater roads in Fort Wayne, but Heritage Mission has been in its current Huntertown building for 10 years.

Entering the large white house – that looks more like it belongs on a prairie than just off Indiana 3 – a visitor can’t help but notice the gorgeous grounds. Heritage Mission is a school, but it’s also the place its students call home.

Mains never imagined that Heritage Mission would develop into a haven for Ethiopian students. She thought she would work with students from the United States who lived with their families. What she found when working with local students, however, was that parents would pull their children out of her at-home school when they moved to other parts of the city. Children from disadvantaged homes need consistent help, and the constant changing of situations can be damaging, she says.

Mains likes students to stay with the program at least six or seven years. It takes that long for them to catch up on their work. Heritage Mission has only one graduate, a young woman who is now a junior at Huntington University. This student did not learn to read until she was 12, Mains says. But she scored in the top 6 percent in the United States on her SATs, and Mains is sure she will become an author.

Heritage Mission boasts only one graduate because so many of Mains’ early students were pulled out by their parents. In addition, Heritage students graduate later than normal, given the time it takes for them to catch up to their proper grade levels, Mains says.

The setup

Several scriptural wall hangings decorate the two-classroom boarding school. One shows biblical figures who weren’t raised by their parents, like Daniel and Moses.

“And they turned out great,” Mains says.

Seven youths in Ethiopia are waiting to become students at Heritage Mission; the school is waiting for the money to bring them here. Heritage Mission goes from kindergarten to 12th grade. Some students will stick around until they are 20 or 21, Mains says. Students are able to work at their own pace and receive one-on-one instruction with part- and full-time teachers.

“We want children who come in who are disadvantaged kids academically and socially,” Mains says. “We want to bring them up to grade level and beyond.”

Students sit at narrow desks with high cubicle-like wooden walls on either side of them that they can decorate the way they want. Abebech, a fifth-grader, has a colored picture of Cinderella hanging on her desk, some photos and other items. She also has a goal sheet that consists of goals she set, Mains says. Abebech has to have at least four. Because students set their own pace, a motivated child can complete two years of coursework in one year.

Students are chosen to attend Heritage Mission because of their academic ability and their spirituality. The majority of Ethiopians are Muslim, Mains says, but before students come to Heritage Mission, they need to convert to Christianity because a portion of the school and its ministry is evangelism. In fact, Mains says, that’s the whole point.

Back to Ethiopia

Mains’ husband and two sons are involved in Heritage Mission. One son, Adam, just returned from Ethiopia. He took the students’ families notes from their children and updates on their well-being. One mother was flabbergasted to learn her daughter – Mehedia Mains, whom Adam and his wife adopted – could walk.

Mehedia, now 12, spilled hot oil on herself when she was little. Ethiopian hospitals could provide only ointment and bandages. Doctors wanted to cut off both legs.

A Fort Wayne woman heard of Mehedia’s story and offered to pay for her flight. The St. Joseph Hospital Burn Unit offered to do the surgery.

Adam took Mehedia’s mother a quilt she had made, and photos, along with the news that her daughter could walk. The mother showed the photo to everyone in the compound, Mains says.

Adam had a translator, he says, because most of the Ethiopians he met with spoke Amharic, a language spoken in north central Ethiopia. Families will travel for hours to meet Adam, only to have a 15- to 20-minute conversation.

“The conversation is, ‘We’re just so thankful they’re in the United States and being educated,’ ” Adam says. “They’re very sad because they don’t get to see their kids very often, and (they say) when they see my face, they see their children.”

Adam returned to Heritage with bags of teff, a wheat flour used to make the Ethiopian bread injera. The students, working in groups, are responsible for making dinner and enjoy making injera, Mains says.

“They like very hot food,” she says. “They’ll put four cups of cayenne pepper in one dish.”

Perhaps best of all, Adam brought back letters, photos and videos for the students from their families.

The school day

Students awake at 5:30 a.m. They prepare breakfast, then eat at 6:30. School starts at 7. Bible study and prayer take place the first hour. Then comes the academic day with traditional subjects, plus English as a second language. Lunch. Study time. If their work is done, the school day ends at 3 p.m., at which point the kitchen team on duty starts to prepare a family-style dinner. It’s served at 4 or 5. Most students spend their free time studying, Mains says, but some enjoy soccer and music. It’s time to shower at 7 and then head to bed at 7:30 to read or study for an hour. It’s lights out at 8:30.

Throughout the week, the school sprinkles in art, gym and choir.

The hardest thing for students to get used to, Mains says, is the food. It took awhile to convince them that hot dogs weren’t made of wild dogs. Drinking milk is tough, too; in Ethiopia, drinks are hot. The idea of cold drinks is a foreign one to the students, and it takes some getting used to.

Heritage Mission is a non-profit group. The school doesn’t charge tuition. Instead, it accepts funds from church, individual and business contributions.

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