Television news - land of helmet hair and shoulder pads - was going to be Ryan Oliver Hansen's career when his life took a detour. To an African orphanage.
Now, his hair is long and ponytailed. His wardrobe consists of T-shirts and cargo shorts. He's teaching children how to drink tea properly out of a china cup. And he says he won't go back to the world of sound bites. He channels his journalism training into making documentaries.
"My babies are in Africa. I don't ever anticipate living in the U.S. again," says Hansen.
Hansen returned to Salt Lake City in October for a fundraising tour for Green Eyes in Africa, the nonprofit organization he and his brother created to provide resources for the New Hope Orphanage he founded a year ago in Yaounde, Cameroon.
He is a lifetime - geographically and psychologically - from his childhood in Sparks, Nev. The youngest of eight children, he studied broadcast journalism at the University of Utah. In between semesters, he taught English in France. And then, in 2004, he decided to volunteer at an orphanage in Ecuador. He met little girls who had been sexually abused and another who had been tortured by having searing hot spoons shoved into her mouth.
"I wanted to have something impressive on my resumé and perfect my Spanish. I went for selfish reasons," Hansen says. "I chose the orphanage from hell. My eyes were opened to what the world is like. I had never been exposed to real poverty. I had never considered that I could have a meaningful impact on the lives of children who've never been loved before."
His older brother Patrick says the change was dramatic. "When [Ryan] left for Ecuador, he was super selfish, self-absorbed. The world revolved around him," he says. "When he came back, he was a changed person. It obviously affected him on a soul level. It was an enormous transition in his personality."
At his brother's urging, Ryan Hansen decided to move to Africa. He searched volunteer Web sites for the perfect job and picked the Sister Marie Cecile Orphanage, home to 23 children, in Yaounde. When he arrived in September 2005, he found children drinking sugar water for meals and going to the bathroom in coffee cans. They were beaten and abused; he was awakened by their screams at night. And he says the woman who ran the orphanage was pocketing donations.
"At first, it was a volunteer's dream come true. It was filthy. It was dark. They definitely needed me. I was ready to transform the orphanage," Hansen says. "After one month, I realized what was really going on." He decided to create an alternative. Hansen began documenting the abuse using his video camera. He arranged for the families of some of the children to pull them out of the orphanage. Patrick Hansen quickly raised $20,000 to rent space for a new orphanage. When the orphanage director discovered their plans, she spread the rumor that Ryan Hansen had kidnapped and sold the children. A group of toughs from the town confronted him and he locked himself in his room. A Marine from the U.S. Embassy had to intervene.
The New Hope orphanage opened in December. But Hansen's problems didn't end there. He was ordered to leave the country on June 9 of this year. U.S. Ambassador Niels Marquardt "expressed concern." Since then, Hansen has been left alone. "We exist under the protection of the U.S. Embassy," Hansen says. "We're tolerated. We're not approved by the Cameroon government."
The orphanage is home to nine children, two blind parents and one mother with AIDS. Another four children have returned home to their families, but the orphanage extends help to them. Fundraising is a constant job, says Patrick Hansen, a corporate trainer and business consultant. New Hope can subsist on $60,000 a year. That pays for rent, food, 24-hour security guards and a bodyguard, taxis to the hospital and doctors' offices, tutors and medicine. But food still is cooked in an open fire pit. The orphanage needs a minivan to transport the children. Eventually, Green Eyes in Africa hopes to expand with orphanages in Kenya and Ghana.
Last month, the brothers met with Utah business leaders in hopes of signing on corporate sponsors. They make a point of noting that every donation goes directly to the orphanage. Both volunteer their time; neither is paid. They are registered with the U.S. government and are subject to IRS rules governing nonprofits. They do not use African banks. And none of the money is filtered through the Cameroon government. Daniel Whitman, U.S. Embassy counselor for public affairs, has written a letter of recommendation for New Hope. Hansen's "work has created a learning and supportive environment which has put nine children on the path to leading productive and fulfilling lives," Whitman wrote.
Heidi Ballif, vice president of the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce, also is a supporter. She saw the Hansens speak at a seminar for children and has watched Ryan Hansen's documentary about New Hope. "When you see children in a situation where they can't help themselves, that's enough to pique your interest," Ballif says. "If somebody's looking for some way to make a difference, this is a very interesting opportunity."
At a fundraiser tonight at Salt Lake City's Sheraton hotel, Green Eyes in Africa will show Hansen's new documentary. Tickets are $20 at the door. For more information, go to www.greeneyesinafrica.org. Ryan Hansen returns to Africa on Monday.
"We want to turn it into a first-class, rather than a Third World, orphanage," says Patrick Hansen.
* At a fundraiser tonight at the Sheraton Hotel, Green Eyes in Africa will show a documentary about the New Hope Orphanage. Ryan Hansen, a budding documentary filmmaker, founded New Hope in Yaounde, Cameroon, a year ago. Tickets are $20 and are available at the door.