IN THE NEWS: Former Malawi orphan gives back in Camden - Courier Post

He is one of 40 interns who went through orientation in preparation for the Monday start of a seven-week camp for 500 kids. The interns come from the U.S., Canada and England.

"Ernesto wants to work with children, to make an impact wherever he is, so he came to UrbanPromise. I'm excited for the kids to get to know him," said Jodina Hicks, executive director of the organization founded in 1988.

Shakazulu's story is the stuff of movies and books. In fact, he began writing his memoir two months ago.

His mother died when he was 3, and a succession of caregivers passed away. His 9-year-old sister — one of seven siblings — took care of him until she got married.

At 11, Shakazulu landed a job taking care of a yard in Lilongwe. He took what little money he earned from landscaping and bought five doughnuts at a bakery. He resold the doughnuts, and put the money back into the business, adding more doughnuts to his inventory each day. He reached 65 doughnuts when someone stole his stash and put him out of business.

In the meantime, he slept in places such as a cardboard box under a disabled bus. "He scoured reeking trash heaps for discarded scraps. He was an orphan with no future other than prison or an early grave," wrote UrbanPromise President Bruce Main, one of Shakazulu's early supporters.

An UrbanPromise worker found Shakazulu and introduced him to an after-school program and offered him a place to stay in one of their orphanages, the SafeHaven Home for Boys on the outskirts of Lilongwe. SafeHaven enrolled Shakazulu in school and nourished him with three meals a day. He flourished.

"I no longer lived on the streets. I was one of seven kids in SafeHaven," said Shakazulu, who is visiting Camden for the first time.

He got tossed out of school for drinking beer. "It was not acceptable to do that," he said of the infraction.

Upset with himself, Shakazulu pecked out an email to an American family he knew living in the area, begging for help. He promised not to repeat the habit if they would send him back to school. They did, and he passed the high school exam.

"Main told me to apply to Azusa Pacific University in Los Angeles, his alma mater. He said, 'You won't regret it,' " Shakazulu said.

A few miracles, some scholarships and a couple of generous benefactors later, Shakazulu enrolled as a freshman in 2013, with a major in economics. Now a junior, the 24-year-old plans to graduate in December 2015.

"I want to go home when I graduate and invest in a business to help raise money to build a school and hospital for my village, Mtengowagwa," he said. "I will create employment."

He also hopes to make a difference as a political leader in the small African country. "I want to be the Malawi president one day."

Hicks calls Shakazulu a miracle.

"I cannot believe his life story," she said. "He is grateful to look at life through the lens of gratitude. He is a boost for young people to whom just eating a meal is a luxury. We hope for many more Ernestos in the future."

In addition to Malawi and Camden, UrbanPromise serves children in Wilmington, Del.; Trenton; Miami; Vancouver, British Columbia; Toronto; Honduras; and Uganda. Young college grads run the various agencies under the UrbanPromise umbrella.

"We have six organizations in Malawi and one in Uganda and they are all thriving," Creative Director Shannon Oberg said.

Replied Hicks, "Our motto is, 'Give them the tools and start-up funds to save the country.' "

Like Shakazulu, intern Ciaran Grant, wants to help out his hometown of New Castle, England. "A lot of good will come out of this experience. I don't know what I want to do, but I want to give my life to New Castle," said the 18-year-old who just graduated high school.

Though only here a few days, Grant called the orientation this week "absolutely incredible."

He will help kids with basketball, take them fishing on the Delaware and pursue other recreational activities.

"It's a big adjustment being here; there's lots of poverty," said Grant, who comes from a gritty place in Northern England where so many end up in jail or into drugs.

"I'm a little nervous, but more excited. I don't want the seven weeks to go fast."

Reach William Sokolic at (856) 486-2437 or wsokolic@courierpostonline.com or on Twitter @WilliamSokolic