The smiles on the faces of Zambian children belie the poverty, hunger, and disease that is life in Zambia. Three friends from Chicago set out two summers ago to touch their lives.
"I wanted to take two guys who are friends of mine and have them feel the experience of what it's like in Africa, and I thought, if I took them there, they would do great things coming back," said Dan Marcus of Spark Ventures, a non-profit organization the friends established.
Marcus is an investment advisor. His friend, Scott Barbeau is a professional musician, and Rich Johnson is the director of campus ministries at North Park University.
"I think we knew we were in for something, but I don't think we knew what we were in for," said Johnson.
The trip took the friends to an orphanage and school in Ndola, where they fell in love with the children, and at the same time, were overwhelmed by so many of their needs. The children often go without proper nutrition and regular schooling.
" We're looking to build a school with a kitchen and a couple classrooms to take care of all these kids," said Marcus.
When the three friends came home, they set up Spark Ventures, which teams up with Hope Ministries to build a new orphanage and school and to provide hundreds of children with something foreign to them: a regular meal.
" A lot of the children wouldn't even go to the school because they were too tired or sick, or their parents would make them go beg for money or food. So, the meal program has been instrumental in allowing them to come to school everyday, [get] nutrition, and have energy. They're excited," said Scott Barbeau.
Cross-cultural partnerships are not easy. Just throwing money at something or imposing "a Western way" are dangerous temptations.
"When they first started talking with them about what they needed most, they didn't say money, they said they wanted leadership development," said Johnson.
As the friends work to recruit others, they look at their giving as an investment in people like a young boy named Ezeron who walks four miles to school each day because he feels it'll better help him to one day become a doctor.
Changing lives in Africa has also changed the lives of three friends. Their mission has helped keep life's problems in perspective.
"It's changed my life because I see people get excited when they're provided with a compelling vision of how to make a difference in the world," Johnson said.
The three friends have made many more in Zambia. They sponsor missions to Ndola. Their partnership and their fundraising efforts have born fruit, including a new van for the school, a building for the orphanage, food and medicine, and a plentiful supply of trust and hope.
Their vision is big and comes with a huge obligation and rewards that are boundless.