Tadais Magazine features interview with Nini Legesse
Celebrating Women’s History Month: Interview with Nini Legesse
By Tseday Alehegn
Published: Monday, March 26, 2012
New York (TADIAS)- Nini Legesse was one of the fourteen community leaders from the East African Diaspora that were honored at the White House as “Champions of Change” last month. Her organization Wegene Ethiopian Foundation provided, among other services, financial support to build an elementary school in Abelti-Jimma, Ethiopia. The White House said: “These leaders are helping to build stronger neighborhoods in communities across the country, and are working to mobilize networks across borders to address global challenges.”
Below is our Q & A with Nini Legesse.
TADIAS: Please tell us about Wegene Ethiopian Foundation. What inspired it?
Nini Legesse: I founded Wegene in 2000 with similarly inspired friends who like me had left their home country in their teenage years. We felt morally obligated to give back. Even though my friends and I feel grateful for the security, opportunity, education and better life that we enjoy in our adoptive country, the United States, we wanted to assist those who have less opportunities in Ethiopia. The goal of Wegene is to enable hardworking, poor families to meet their daily needs and send their children to school in a sustainable way.
We also have Wegene Kids Club. The club raises funds through bake sales, movie nights, crafting, and other various activities in order to create awareness and reach out to Ethiopian American youth. In addition to our projects in Ethiopia, the Wogene Kids Club also volunteers by feeding and distributing clothing to the homeless in the Washington, D.C. area. One of Wegene’s unique features is that it is 100% volunteer based. As a result, our overhead cost is near to nothing, because everyone involved is donating their time, money, and other in-kind donations.
TADIAS: What do you most enjoy about your work?
NL: My work for Wegene is more of a mission and it’s something that I’m very passionate about. It is meaningful and intensely rewarding. Also, I’m grateful that Wegene has created an opportunity to cultivate social ties to my home country and to make a difference in someone’s life at a personal level. This work offers me fulfillment and civic satisfaction beyond imagination. I think we each have to realize our human potential for compassion and love. I see our world as a generous place where we reach out to others as we move through life. It doesn’t matter if our contribution is large or small; doing what we can to positively affect the life of a single person provides immense gratification. I also work full time as a patent examiner at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. I have been working at this job since 2001.
TADIAS: In a celebrating Women’s History Month, who are your female role models?
NL: I have numerous. One of my role models is Dr. Catherine Hamlin. I admire her lifetime devotion and mission to treating childbirth-related injures of disadvantaged women in Ethiopia. I’m amazed at how humble and loving she is. Her book, The Hospital by the River, is one of my favorite books. My other role model is Mrs. Marta Gebre-Tsadick, the founder of Project Merci. Marta is a remarkable woman. It is incredible what she and her husband have created. They built a school and hospital and established agricultural development programs. To me, she is a woman who has become a force of nature. Lastly, but equally as important, my mother and each of my six sisters have been my role models especially because I am the youngest child in my family.
TADIAS: Please tell us more about yourself (where you were born, grew up, school and how you developed your passion for your work).
NL: I was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. My parents are Mrs. Kebrework Senke and Dejazmach Legesse Bezou. I have five sisters and two brothers. Now I lost one of my sisters to Lou Gehrig’s disease. I came to the United States at the age of 17. The school that I attended in Ethiopia was Nazareth School, of which I have many good memories. I received my undergraduate degree from Berea College in Kentucky and my Master’s Degree in Industrial Technology from Ball State University in Indiana. I am happily married to Eskinder Teklu for over 17 years and I have three wonderful children ages 16, 15, and 11. I have many relatives and friends I love and adore. In addition to a lot of new friends I have made each year, I am lucky that I also still have my kindergarten friends actively involved in my life. In my spare time, I love to read, listen to music, write poems, watch movies, decorate, help my kids with their school projects, garden, and do craftwork.
TADIAS: What are some practical tips you can give for young Ethiopian women who want to follow in your footsteps?
NL: It’s okay to fail, as long as you learn from your mistakes and avoid making the same mistakes again. There is no single problem that can’t be solved through determination. Understand that hard work will pay off. The main thing is to find your purpose in life. Find something that gives your life meaning.
TADIAS: Is there anything else you would like to share with Tadias readers that we haven’t asked you?
NL: I just want to thank all of your readers for taking their valuable time to read about me and the Wegene Ethiopian Foundation. My heartfelt thank you to Tadias magazine for the opportunity given to me to share about my passion.
I am honored and humbled to be a White House Champion of Change. I arrived in the United States as an Ethiopian immigrant at the age of 17 and later became a naturalized U.S. citizen. Now I work as a patent examiner for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. Still, one of my most important accomplishments is serving as the president of a dynamic non-profit organization called Wegene Ethiopian Foundation (WEF), which I founded with the help of my friends and family members in the year 2000.
I am extremely grateful for the security, opportunity for education, and better life my adoptive country, the United States, has provided me and my family. I believe it is my privilege and duty to give back to both my birth country and the U.S. in any way I can. As a result, it is especially rewarding to be part of a foundation that provides fundamental change to less fortunate families sustaining themselves at the price of one cup of coffee per day and to make a difference for these families and their communities. This is really the finest sort of empowerment, where we all can be partners and the ownership belongs to our partners who benefit from the program. As a partner of Wegene, I have the opportunity to make a difference at a personal level. This offers me fulfillment and civic satisfaction beyond imagination. Wegene’s vision and strategy is simple because the resources are deliverable and the overhead cost is near to nothing. Additionally, almost everyone involved is donating their time, money, and contacts in kind to this noble work.
Through a sustainable manner, Wegene’s mission is to improve the everyday lives of less fortunate and disadvantaged children and their families in Ethiopia. This mission is based on the philosophy that if hardworking, destitute families are given the opportunity, tools, and resources to improve their lives, they will have a stepping stone to emerge from the poverty cycle and give their children better educational opportunities in order to lead happier, healthier lives. Wegene creates opportunities for families to become self-sufficient through vocational training and small start-up grants.
Full Video: Champions of Change: Trailblazers in American Diaspora Communities
The overall success of the foundation is primarily reflected in the long-term successes of the families and children it supports. Wegene has supported 28 families (of which 8 families are now self-sufficient) and enrolled over 75 homeless children in schools as a result of local fundraisers, including sales of baked goods, handmade clay figurines, jewelry, crafts, doll designs, and my personal poetry books. Wegene has also successfully recruited hundreds of members to the foundation who pay dues of $10 per month.
All Wegene board members are volunteers who are highly dedicated to the foundation’s mission. A significant portion of the foundation’s success can be attributed to their commitment and hard work. With various educational and professional backgrounds, each board member has been using his or her expertise in marketing, fundraising, management, etc., to contribute to the development and growth of the foundation. These board members have played an essential role in mobilizing Ethiopians in the Diaspora to give back to the homeland. The children of the board members have also established a sub-group called The Wegene Kids Club. The club raises funds through bake sales, movie nights, and crafting. The club also holds different activities to enhance the awareness of the Ethiopian American youth living in the U.S. In addition to helping the disadvantaged families in Ethiopia, the Wegene Kids Club has been involved in feeding and distributing clothing to the homeless in the Washington, D. C. area for the past 3 years.
Visiting a remote village, in Jimma area, of Ethiopia in 2006, I noticed that the only local school had been ruined and abandoned, forcing the area’s children to walk two hours each way to the nearest school. In response, I spearheaded a project to build an elementary school for the area, raising money by running the 2007 Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, D. C. Despite the fact that I was an amateur runner with a demanding schedule of work and raising three children, I joined a boot camp to get in shape, woke up at 5 a.m., and trained daily for 40 weeks. I was able to raise enough money to get the foundation of the school constructed. My efforts inspired others to participate in the 2007 and 2010 Marine Corps Marathon. My commitment to finishing the school continued by organizing other fund raising activities such as soliciting for raffle items, holding fundraiser dinners and Sponsor a Desk programs. Even though it took over four years, we were able to raise enough money to make the school building dream a reality. On February 26, 2011, the elementary school was inaugurated and presented to the local people to run and manage it.
I see our world as a generous place where we truly reach out to others as we move through life. I strongly believe that we each have a humanitarian equity with which we can make a difference. It does not matter if our contribution is large or small; doing what we can to positively affect the life of a single person will provide us with immense gratification. I think our legacy should be how much we gave not how much we made. Wegene poses the challenge of changing our hearts and lives through service by giving to and caring for our fellow neighbors of the world and I am fortunate to be a part of its success.
Nini Legesse is the president of a dynamic non-profit organization called Wegene Ethiopian Foundation (WEF) which she founded with the help of her friends and family members in the year 2000.
THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of Communications Press Release - January 27, 2012
White House Highlights Nini Legesse as a “Champion of Change” and Trailblazer in American Diaspora Communities
WASHINGTON, DC – On Monday, January 30th, the White House will honor Nini Legesse as one of fourteen Champions of Change who are leaders in American Diaspora communities with roots in the Horn of Africa. These leaders are helping to build stronger neighborhoods in communities across the country, and are working to mobilize networks across borders to address global challenges.
The Champions of Change program was created as a part of President Obama’s Winning the Future initiative. Each week, a different sector is highlighted and groups of Champions, ranging from educators to entrepreneurs to community leaders, are recognized for the work they are doing to serve and strengthen their communities.
“These men and women are American leaders we want to celebrate,” said Deputy National Security Advisor Denis McDonough. “We commend the innovative practices, achievements and leadership these change makers bring not only to their communities around this country—but also to the development of and diplomacy with their countries of origin.”
Nini Legesse is the president of a dynamic non-profit organization called Wegene Ethiopian Foundation (WEF) which she founded with the help of her friends and family members in the year 2000. Wegene has supported 28 impoverished families (8 of which are now self-sufficient) and enrolled over 75 homeless children in schools as a result of sales of baked goods, handmade clay figurines, doll designs and Nini’s poetry books. She has also successfully recruited hundreds of members who pay monthly dues which directly support Wegene’s cause. Each year, Nini spends countless hours knocking on neighborhood doors sharing Wegene’s vision and mission while realizing her dream of eliminating poverty through education.
While visiting a remote village in the Jimma area of Ethiopia in 2006, Nini noticed that the only local school had been ruined and abandoned, forcing the area’s children to walk two hours each way to the nearest school. In response, she spearheaded a project to build an elementary school for the area. By organizing various Wegene fund raising activities, Nini helped raise money for materials and construction. After four years of effort and commitment, the school building dream was a reality. On February 26, 2011, the elementary school was inaugurated and presented to the local people to manage and oversee.
In addition to her commitment to Wegene, Nini works full time and is a mother of three school-aged children. She first arrived in the United States as a 17-year-old Ethiopian immigrant and later became a naturalized citizen. Nini received her bachelor’s degree from Berea College and her graduate degree from Ball State University. She has been working as a patent examiner in the U.S. Patent and Trademarks Office since 2001, where she earned the Bronze Medal Award from the U.S. Department of Commerce.
Wegene registered in the Combined Federal
Campaign (CFC) for the first time
Thank you for your continued support to Wegene for the last many years. The latest news regarding Wegene is that it has registered in the Combined Federal Campaign (CFC) for the first time. Please pass this great news to all the Federal government employees you know. Wegene's assigned CFC No. is 16021 (for more information regarding CFC, please review the attachment).
Wegene is currently planning to have" Happy Hour" event and a Zumba family event between now and December. During these events, we will have updates and progress reports of our work and the status of our sponsored families. In the mean time, I would like to briefly share with you some of the activities Wegene had this year. I am very happy to inform you that we have finished building the elementary school we started in Abilty, Jimma. The school was inaugurated on February 26, 2011. In May, Wegene was invited to The Secretary's Global Diaspora Forum in the State Department. Wegene participated in the Education Panel during the forum. Multiple volunteers and Wegene members from the US have delivered new shoes and school supplies to our sponsored families during their vacation visits to Addis Ababa. Regarding some of our sponsored families: Abiye, the student we sponsored in private school who earned his IT Diploma has got his BS in Computer Science this year. Binyiam, the young man we sponsored to become an elementary teacher a couple of years ago, has got his second teacher's diploma this year allowing him to teach in high school. Both Abiye and Binyiam are currently employed in their respective fields. Teddy, has become a 2nd year medical student in Gonder. Betty, has become a 2nd year university student in Arba Minch (it has been a very sad and challenging year for Betty and Wegene since Betty's mom passed away due to a car accident). Abiye, Betty, and Teddy have been expressing how grateful they are for the laptop computers they received from Wegene supporters. Bizunish has become an auto mechanic. New families from our waiting list have been added while 3 families have successfully exited from Wegene's sponsorship cycle since they have become self-sufficient.
Regarding the where about and time of the Happy Hour and the Zumba event, I will contact you very soon. I look forward to see you soon in person and share a lot more info.
WEF was invited to participate in the Education Panel at the Secretary’s Global Diaspora Forum. Wegene's president, Nini Legesse, will be in the panel discussion that will take place from 11:00 am-12:30 pm on Wednesday, May 18.
You can join the discussion via internet. For further information, please check the link to join the forum.
Please Click Here.
Video: Opening of the Secretary's Global Diaspora Forum May 17, 2011
Remarks Hillary Rodham Clinton
Secretary of State
Loy Henderson Auditorium
Washington, DC Remarks at the Opening of the Secretary's Global Diaspora Forum
May 17, 2011
On Nov. 13, 2010 at 7:00 PM Wegene will be celebrating its 10 year anniversary/ fundraiser at Beth El Hebrew Congregation
3830 Seminary Rd, Alexandria, VA
Two of WEF members will be raising money by participating in the the Oct 31, 2010 Marine Corps Marathon
Yewebdar Tadesse and Betelhem Shewareged
We deeply appreciate your support for this event.
Colonnade shopping centre in Centreville Va July 11, 10-2
Cardinal forest shopping centre in Springfield, Va July 18, 10-2
Our team member, Amarech Worku organized a craft sale at the Jewish Community Center (JCC), 8900 Little River Turnpike, Fairfax, VA 22031. Amarech presented beautiful jewelry, T-shirts, flowers, and many other items that were all hand made. The event was a success. There will be more craft shows in the future, and we will keep you posted.
Binyam, whom Wegene has just sponsored through Teachers Training College earns his certificate and is now able to teach grades 1 through 4. Wegene will continue to sponsor Binyam to help him earn his Teacher's Diploma.
Abiy, the brilliant boy sponsored by Wegene, who just earned his Diploma in IT is now pushing ahead for his Degree.
Around 50 pairs of shoes got distributed to Wegene sponsored families (children) just in time for the start of the new school year.
This year the Wegene Ethiopian Foundation (WEF) is sponsoring an amateur team to run the 2007 Marine Corps Marathon on Sunday, October 28, 2007.
Abiy, a very bright young man, whom Wegene has been sponsoring through college while he was studying IT graduated with very great distinction from Microlink College. We've put a video of his graduation day here.
Serkalem, W/o Etynesh's beloved daughter passed away suddenly. Wegene has been helping W/o Etynesh's family for a while now. Wegene even set up Serkalem in her own Samosa and Soft drink selling business where she was doing so well that she was on the way to ensure her families self-sufficiency. Our condolences goes out to her bereaved family.
Wegene makes a second donation to a local orphanage.
Wegene was invited to San Hose State University where its president, Nini Legesse made a speach introducing Wegene and its work.
A group of US born children in the US, mostly children of Wegene members, organize and raise funds for Wegene by carrying out cake bake sales. Watch the video (3 minutes) here
Wegene was invited to Abelti (Jimma), Ethiopia by the local community there after they heard that Wegene helps impoverished families. The community is looking for benevolent donors to help them build a school for the children since there isn't one for grades above fourth. Please watch the video of their warm welcome here
Wegene sets up various families with their own micro-businesses and fixes up crumbling homes. A daughter of one family was put through a training to be a hair dresser where as another youngster from another family was trained to be a barber, now hoping and waiting that Wegene will set him up in his own business.
"Rebuilding families one child at a time!"
WEF's mission is to improve the everyday lives of less fortunate and disadvantaged children and their families in Ethiopia in a sustainable manner. WEF also aims to foster goodwill and hope in these families, and create and strengthen their ties with the donors that reside outside of Ethiopia.
Goals and Objectives
The overall goal of WEF is to enable hardworking destitute families meet their daily needs and send their children to school; and to create opportunities for them to become self-sufficient. WEF plans to achieve these goals through objectives, including
Matching up families with caretakers
Preparing a home setting for those without homes
Enrolling their children in public or private schools
Engaging family heads in vocational or skill training activities
Providing selected families with grants to start-up small businesses or helping them secure fulltime jobs