How To Build a ‘Happy Memory’—Volunteerism at Work in Zimbabwe

Americans of all ages, backgrounds, and interests come to Zimbabwe. They come to see the rhinos, elephants, and Victoria Falls; they come as part of church mission groups to build health clinics and schools; and they come to share their expertise and learn from Zimbabweans at all levels. Many American visitors end up doing a lot more than what they planned, motivated by the strong American sense of taking action when faced with a needy situation, as well as a personal desire to change situations for the better. At the U.S. Embassy in Harare, we often hear about these proactive, engaged Americans and are proud that they accomplish so much on their own. When possible, we support them with advice, publicity, and small grants.

“I wanted to make a happy memory,” explains Dennis Gaboury, the founder of the Zimkids Orphan Trust in Bulawayo. Gaboury is an American sculptor who accompanied his wife in 2005 to Bulawayo for her one-year Fulbright fellowship. While she taught journalism at the local university, Dennis explored local neighborhoods, encountering what he describes as “a lot of death and sick kids” from HIV and other poverty-related problems. Life expectancy in Zimbabwe that year was 34 years of age, and much of the country’s population needed food aid.

Starting with a toy-making competition for kids city-wide, Dennis soon realized that one-time events and one-time assistance of food baskets and other help were not making a real impact. Getting to know some of the kids — mostly orphans — in the poorest neighborhoods showed him that they needed job skills and empowerment. This would take more time and more commitment but would actually change lives. “The program is about allowing them (the participants) to live within their culture but do a little better in that framework,” he explains.

Zimkids is now a registered trust in Zimbabwe. It has a center in the Pumula North township of Bulawayo, where children gather daily for after school tutoring, art courses, and lessons in welding, bricklaying, and carpentry. The center was built by the kids themselves under the tutelage of local craftspeople and Dennis himself. In particular, the girls welding program has broken new ground and produced a group of top quality teenage girl welders qualified to work on any real estate development project.

Dennis is quick to point out that Zimkids is not “his” organization. It reached the successful level that it is at today thanks to his Zimbabwean partners, especially 23-year-old Tinashe Basa, the full time Director of Zimkids, and to support from people all around the world but particularly in the United States. Schools in New York, Massachusetts, and Florida now participate in Skype discussions with the young people at Zimkids. And Zimbabwean students applying to U.S. universities through the U.S. Student Achievers Program (USAP) run by the U.S. Embassy go to the center on a weekly basis to tutor the children there as part of the USAPCares public service program. In 2011, Zimkids received a grant from the U.S. Ambassador’s Self Help program to dig a water borehole, start a market garden, and install a drip irrigation system and greenhouse.

Volunteerism is not widespread in Zimbabwe; most people struggle daily to make ends meet and are reluctant to give their time for free. Through hard work, determination, and obvious commitment, Zimkids has planted the American idea of volunteerism in one corner of Zimbabwe. Dennis’s wife, Elinor Burkett, notes that, “Ours is a culture of volunteerism, whether in humanitarian regard or in terms of local needs in the arts, education, health, etc. Responding to concrete needs, then, is part of the way we think.”

Editor’s Note: This year, MLK Day commemorations will coincide with the U.S. Presidential Inauguration, so President Obama is asking all American citizens to join him in participating in a National Day of Service on Saturday, January 19. If you are living in the United States, you can visit to learn about volunteer opportunities in your community.

Sharon Hudson-Dean serves as Counselor for Public Affairs at the U.S. Embassy in Harare, Zimbabwe.