The Faith to Turn Lives Around

What began as a trip to bring school supplies to Ethiopian kids became a mission to improve health conditions and create opportunities for thousands of villagers.

August 30, 2016

What brought Wyn Ray from Minnesota to the impoverished African nation of Ethiopia was a simple story about a pencil.

Ray’s wife, Sunny, had been a famine relief volunteer in a rural village in Ethiopia in 1974. In 2008, she returned to the same rural community and crossed paths with an Ethiopian man who remembered meeting her 34 years earlier when she gave him a pencil. The man told Sunny that the pencil became his ticket to school, because without it, he wouldn’t have been allowed to attend. The education he received set his life on a path that led to him becoming a commanding officer in the village military garrison. Wyn Ray was so moved by the story that it prompted him to take action himself. “It was incredible that a pencil had such a dramatic effect on one person,” says Ray, vice president of the Coldwell Banker Burnet branch in Chaska, Minn.

Two years later, in 2010, he and his wife traveled together to the Ethiopian village of Wekin, their suitcases filled with school supplies, textbooks, and shoes, and what Ray saw there astounded him.

In Need of Bare Essentials

The kids of Wekin needed more than pencils. The well that supplied clean water had long been broken, and the local high school didn’t have a bathroom for its 800 students. Some girls refused to go to school because of the lack of privacy. “I was shocked when they showed us a hole in the ground and told us it was the latrine for the high school,” Ray says. “I felt like I had gone back 200 years in time.”

The Rays decided on the spot to fund the cost of constructing 16 latrines and to bring clean water to Wekin’s elementary and high schools, which together serve about 2,000 students. But he wanted to empower area residents to take part in their own improvements. An expert negotiator, Wyn drew up a contract with local officials to provide financial support as long as the community carried out the projects. “We told them we expected them to finish the latrines and fix the well so kids could have water at school, and we said we’d be back in two years,” he recalls.

In 2012, the Rays returned as promised, eager to see if the villagers upheld their end of the challenge—and they had. They banded together to finish building the latrines, and their schools had clean, running water for the students. It was a testament to their resolve and commitment to following through on their promise, Ray says. “They honored our contract.”

Building Success

The resounding success of the first project fueled the Rays’ desire to do more. So Wyn met with the town’s leaders again, agreeing this time to finance a fence around the four-acre high school property to help keep it secure. The villagers built the fence by 2014, and the visibility of the school’s transformation led to a grant from the Ethiopian government that paid for desks and chairs. “The fence gave them legitimacy,” Wyn says.

The Rays’ work in Wekin has encompassed a range of projects that collectively have made life better for more than 10,000 people. They funded construction of another 36 latrines in Wekin and the nearby town of Debat and contributed money for a short-term medical clinic. They also helped build a meat-processing facility with improved safety and sanitation conditions. At the prior site, disease was rampant because there was no way to dispose of goat and cattle carcasses properly. Another initiative is providing microloans for villagers to start sewing businesses, among other enterprises. “Your values change when you know people can eat, sleep, drink water, and go to school because of your work. It’s so much more rewarding than all the other stuff you can spend your money on,” says Sunny.

Working with St. Paul, Minn.-based nonprofit Books for Africa, which ships donated books in 40-foot shipping containers, the Rays are in the process of collecting 20,000 books for Wekin and have raised the nearly $16,000 needed to cover the cost of shipping. They plan to start construction this fall on a library, which will include a wing for an organization that supports blind and deaf children in the community. They will return to Wekin in January to deliver a pair of donated Braille writing machines and books and sponsor another short-term medical clinic with the capacity to treat up to 2,000 people. They also will assess Wekin’s need for additional wells and latrines.

Their life-changing efforts are the subject of a critically acclaimed documentary, “Be Full and Hang Around,” which was released in 2015. The film has helped them win over new donors, like a U.S. couple they met in a German airport who ended up contributing $30,000.

In addition to attracting financial support for the work he and Sunny do in Ethiopia, Ray has convinced others to accompany them on journeys to Wekin. One of those was his friend and fellow humanitarian David Hibbison, who joined them on a 2012 visit.

“When you talk about a servant’s heart, Wyn comes to mind right away,” says Hibbison, executive director of New Life in Christ in Clearwater, Minn., a nonprofit prison fellowship where Ray also volunteers. Hibbison, who joined the Rays on a 2012 trip to Ethiopia, says, “He is so unselfish, and he genuinely wants to see others succeed.”

A Selfless Quest

To make their efforts for Ethiopia more efficient and productive, in 2014 the Rays began a partnership with the New Covenant Foundation, a Christian mission organization based in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, that has staff and volunteers in Ethiopia. Erik Laursen, the foundation’s executive director, says the Rays’ eagerness to travel to an easily overlooked part of the world reflects the depth of their dedication. “It’s a real difficult place. There are bugs, the toilets are holes in the ground, and the food can be difficult to eat,” Laursen says. But despite the awful conditions, “Wyn is super happy the whole time.”

The Rays’ work “is not about tax deductions or a pat on the back,” adds Laursen, who traveled with them to Wekin in 2014. “They just have a heart for these people who are suffering and want to love neighbors who happen to be far away.”

Contact Wyn Ray at wgray@cbburnet.com and Wells for Wekin at wellsforwekin.org.

As a writer-producer for the National Association of REALTORS® based in Washington, Sam Silverstein develops articles and videos for NAR's members and others interested in its activities, statistics and research. You can contact him at SSilverstein@realtors.org.