Deseret News Article December 1, 2006

Deseret Morning News, Friday, December 01, 2006

'Transformation' leads to Africa orphanage

By Elaine Jarvik
Deseret Morning News

In 2004, when he was a communications major at the University of Utah, Ryan Hansen signed up to volunteer at an orphanage in Ecuador. His plan, he admits now (with a disarming penchant for self-mockery), was to make a heartwarming documentary that would help him land a job in broadcasting.

It was a good plan, especially since the video turned out to be so heartwarming it won a Student Emmy. But by then, his career seemed less important than a 4-year-old named Andrea.

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Ryan Hansen holds baby Julietta at the Sister Marie Cecile Orphanage in Cameroon. He later opened his own orphanage there.

Green Eyes In Africa

When Hansen first met her, she was the little girl the other children called "stinky" and the grown-ups spanked for eating unripe mangoes off the orphanage tree. On a day that stands out in his mind as a turning point, all those mangoes gave Andrea diarrhea, and Hansen dragged her to the bathroom to clean her up.

There she was, a tiny, soiled, sullen girl, and there Hansen was, the stern, impatient grown-up. "And she had nobody who loved her," he says now, his voice cracking. "All of a sudden I thought, 'This is the wrong approach."'

Although the orphanage nuns had cautioned the volunteers to not hug the children, Hansen is a hugger by nature. Outgoing and effusive, he was playful with the children from the start. Now he made an extra effort to hug Andrea, too.

"Her transformation was my transformation," he says.

Hansen came to realize he had what he calls "a knack for loving the underdog." And he also had no tolerance for institutions that hurt the children they're supposed to help.

His second turning point, he says, was a day spent alone on the Ecuadorean coast. Discouraged about the future of the orphans he had come to love, he swam out to a peninsula, climbed to the top of a mountain and sat for a long time in a dead mango tree.

Hansen has a flair for the dramatic, so perhaps he wasn't surprised to hear a voice tell him, "You are a warrior for peace." From that moment in the mango tree, he says, "I knew I was going to Africa."

The rest of the story can be found at greeneyesinafrica.org. and in a documentary Hansen hopes will raise money for an orphanage that he and his older brother Patrick have opened in the central African nation of Cameroon. The documentary will be shown at a $20-a-plate fund-raiser tonight at the Sheraton City Centre Hotel.

Ryan runs the New Hope orphanage, while Patrick does the fund raising from his home in Sandy. Neither of them takes a salary, and no money goes to bribes, even though that's business as usual in Cameroon. So 100 percent of the money raised goes back into the orphanage itself, Patrick explains. Ryan lives at New Hope and lives frugally.

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Ryan Hansen stands with some of his new friends on a mountaintop in Cameroon.

Green Eyes In Africa

It's easy to pick Ryan Hansen out of the photos on the nonprofit's Web site: He's the tall man with shaggy blond hair. In the documentary, he is by turns joyful and distraught as he chronicles a harrowing tale of his involvement with the Sister Marie Cecile Orphanage in Yaounde, the capital of Cameroon, and his subsequent decision to open New Hope.

Hansen first traveled to Cameroon in August 2005 to work at Sister Marie Cecile, which he had learned about on the aptly named Web site idealist.org. By the end of his first month there, Hansen discovered that the orphanage was not only filthy but that some of the children were being beaten. Hansen also accuses the owner of the orphanage of using donations to house her own family.

Hansen was filming everything he saw, including — with the camera perched on the table in his bedroom — his own distress. Eventually he contacted extended family members of all the orphans, asking them to sign papers to remove the children from the Sister Marie Cecile orphanage.

Meanwhile, back in Sandy, Patrick was feverishly trying to raise enough money so the brothers could pay a year's rent in advance to open their own orphanage. Within two weeks, they succeeded in getting all but one of the children out.

That's when the owner of the Sister Marie Cecile orphanage "went on the attack," Hansen says. "She said I was a child trafficker. It was all over the radio."

He was forced to hire a body guard, who says he soon received death threats. Later, representatives of the country's social-services agency arrived at New Hope with armed guards and a document to shut it down.

The U.S. Embassy eventually intervened, and since then, the Cameroon government has backed off. Now New Hope is thriving, he says, with help from African staff members.

"I didn't do this on my own," Hansen says. "I have heroic African friends, who sometimes took more risks than I did."

Hansen is in Utah this month, hoping that his new documentary — all those tearful, cheerful brown eyes and Hansen's tearful, exuberant green ones — will move Utahns to donate money. Then it's off to Africa again, where he plans to live for the rest of his life.


E-mail: jarvik@desnews.com

© 2006 Deseret News Publishing Company

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