Tucson nonprofit works to help Senegal street children

Ten years ago, a rodent changed the course of the future for Elhadj Ndoye and impoverished children living in Mbour, Senegal, in West Africa.

“In 2009 I went back to Senegal and my brother and I were sitting on the balcony and talking. The sun was coming up and I saw a few kids chasing a rat. They were trying to catch the rat so they could eat it. A rat. When I saw that, I just started crying … I said, ‘This is crazy. I have to do something,’” said Ndoye, a native of Senegal who came to Tucson in 1995 to attend school and has made it his home since.

After attending Pima Community College, he graduated in 2001 from the University of Arizona with a bachelor’s of science in business administration with a specialization in operations management. Now a senior vice president with Canyon Community Bank, Ndoye never forgot the street children whom he had watched beg for food from house to house while he was growing up, and his return to Africa showed the problem was still rampant.

He said these street children are known as “talibés,” or students; they were sent from poor, rural villages by their parents, who had contracted with Marabouts, teachers, to provide the children with care and education.

Traditionally, talibé children engage in farming and other enterprises to support the Marabouts in exchange for their education; many Marabouts also bring the children to Senegal where they beg for food or money.

A 2017 report by the Human Rights Watch and the Platform for the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights, a coalition of Senegalese rights groups, estimated that tens of thousands of talibé children experience forced begging and abuse at the hands of Marabouts in spite of government efforts to end the practice.

Ndoye witnessed the poor living conditions that many talibé experience when his brother took him to a building that he assumed was abandoned.

“He opened the door and I could see 50 or 60 kids laying on the cement floor. All I could picture were my three daughters. I thought, ‘This could easily be my kids,’” he said.

Ndoye was galvanized into action. When he returned to Tucson, he visited an attorney who suggested he start a nonprofit organization and The Forgotten Children was born.

The initial intent was to provide talibé in Senegal with a basic level of care — clothing, medical supplies, household items and food — in order to positively influence their health and reduce crime.

Ndoye sent emails to everyone he knew, requesting donations of gently used clothing, socks and shoes, and began to raise funds to ship the items. He also planned an annual benefit dinner and silent auction with entertainment. The eighth event, Afri-Can 8, will be staged at 6:30 p.m. June 29 at Armory Park Center, 220 S. 5th Ave.

“I remember when we raised enough money and took the first container. I had rented a place and on the last day three kids came running up because they had heard we were giving clothes away. There was just one pair of socks left — a red one and a blue one — and I said one of them could have them and you could just see the joy in that kid. It was unbelievable,” he said.

While the effort was rewarding, Ndoye soon came to the conclusion that something more was needed.

“We realized that just giving the kids stuff wasn’t solving the real issues. We needed to give the kids an education and teach them something that they could use so they didn’t have to live that lifestyle. That is how our shelter and boarding school came about,” he said.

Five years ago, The Forgotten Children built a small shelter with a classroom, restroom and kitchen. The classroom doubles as a dormitory at night. Two years later, the nonprofit implemented a five-year plan for a boarding school featuring an office, a dormitory and a school complete with a trade school, gardens and space for domestic animals. The project is designed to house 80 to 100 kids, from kindergarten through high school.

“We have been doing it in phases since we were not able to collect all the money needed at once … the sooner we get it done, the sooner we can get kids in there, but it is what it is and we are making progress,” he said.

Now in year three, the land has been purchased and the first floor of the main building is complete, along with the kitchen and the trade school. Ndoye is raising funds for the $41,960 needed to roof the office and construct the second floor of the main building, which will house the dormitory.

Ndoye said the shelter itself has already made a huge impact on the daily lives of the children.

“The day after we opened the shelter, a little boy said, ‘Elijah, I had a dream last night,’ and I said, ‘Tell me, what was it about?’ He said, ‘I don’t remember what it was about, but I felt so good and so comfortable sleeping there that for the first time I remember having a dream.’ I stood there and cried like a baby. These are the little things that keep me going and make me want to continue: He had a dream,” said Ndoye.

Ndoye said the resilience of the children he works with in Senegal is truly inspirational.

“No matter how tough the situation is, these kids always have smiles on their faces. They are always laughing and having fun and in good spirits despite the hardship. It just amazes me,” he said.

Ndoye and volunteers such as Oro Valley resident Andi Smith, a board member for The Forgotten Children, hope that Tucsonans will be moved to join the effort and emphasized that every dollar counts.

“These kids tug at my heartstrings so much. We may see poverty in this country, but we don’t see children tossed on the streets with no food, no water and no shelter. In Senegal, little children live on the streets and that should just not be,” said Smith.

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