Tuesday, September 22, 2009


AAI's Director Merrily Ripley recently attended a gala retirement celebration for Kathy Olsen, AHOPE's longtime Executive Director and close personal friend. Below are excerpts from Merrily's tribute to Kathy at the dinner. They tell the story of AAI and AHOPE's close ties from the very beginning. Everyone at AAI congratulates Kathy on her retirement and extends gratitude for her many years of service on behalf of AHOPE's mission to serve HIV+ children in Ethiopia. Congratulations as well to AHOPE's new director--Tom Starko, pictured at bottom--and we look forward to continued collaboration with AHOPE under his leadership.

(l-r--Kathy Olsen, Sidisse Buli, and Merrily Ripley at the gala in Seattle, June '09)

I first met Kathy Olsen in the early 1970s. Ted and I had adopted three children from Korea when Anne, also from Korea, joined the Olsen family. I met Kathy at a potluck for adoptive families. We had much in common and especially enjoyed talking about our families which consisted of both bio and adopted children.

In 1976 I established an adoption agency and became professionally involved in this issue which so influenced our family as well as Kathy’s.

In 1980 the Olsen family moved to Taiwan to live for a year. John was starting a business there and the family welcomed the adventure of a year of international living experience. The family had barely settled when she began to research adoption possibilities and she learned that almost no orphan children were being sent abroad for adoption. Kathy established relationships with a couple of organizations caring for orphan children and helped them to begin adoption programs. She urged me to come to Taipei and we began identifying adoptable children. Kathy and I shared a concern for children with physical disabilities and at first the Chinese refused to accept the fact that we could find adoptive families for them. But of course we could and did, and gradually, babies who otherwise would have been left to die because of the prejudice against their disabilities were being referred to us for adoption. I could tell you many stories of successful placements of children with missing limbs, cleft lip and palate, heart defects, deafness, and blind ness. Kathy sent us information on the children offered to us and we placed nearly all of them.

Adoption from Taiwan continued for about 10 years with Kathy acting as AAI’s coordinator. Then rules changed and it became much harder to get U.S. visas for the adopted children. When the Iron Curtain fell however, AAI began placing children from Bulgaria. Kathy was right there to help, again as a volunteer but a very experienced one. AAI established the first foreign adoption program in Bulgaria and she traveled there, going from orphanage to orphanage identifying adoptable children—mostly children with special needs and those who were older, AAI’s main focus. Kathy organized and managed the sponsorship program which established an account for certain Bulgarian orphans with special abilities and no family ties so that they could be provided with the extra things they needed.

(Sidisse presenting Kathy with a gift from AHOPE-Ethiopia)

AAI began working in Ethiopia in the late 1990’s and again Kathy established a sponsorship program, mostly for siblings of children who were being adopted but were too old to join new families themselves. She traveled there to meet the sponsored children and assist with AAI’s work. Kathy and I had often talked about the many children who referred to AAI for adoption but were found to be HIV+. AAI was sending them to an overcrowded and unappealing orphanages, the only facilities that would accept them. We made plans began fundraising to establish AHOPE, a facility for HIV+ children where they could live the best life we could give them while they waited to die.

Kathy found sponsors for these children and arranged many extras for them. For example, because birthdays are rarely known or celebrated in Ethiopia, she set up a King or Queen for the Day program where each child would have a special day to wear a crown and cape and be honored with a cake.

(Merrily giving the tribute to Kathy at the gala)

In 2002 Kathy mentioned that she had time on her hands and was open to working on an additional project. AAI had been getting pressure to remove itself from the AHOPE project because the government saw it as a conflict for AAI to both arrange adoptions and to manage a long term care facility. We decided to turn the AHOPE home in Ethiopia over to the manager there and Kathy began to serve as Executive Director of the now separate AHOPE-USA, fundraising from her home on Vashon Island while overseeing the work in Ethiopia.

Kathy gradually realized that the person in charge of the facility in Ethiopia was not being fiscally responsible and the Ethiopian government stepped in to have him removed and to establish a new board of directors to supervise the work in Ethiopia. They then hired Sidisse Buli, an exemplary young administrator, who has proven to been the perfect person to direct AHOPE's work in Ethiopia. On the U.S. side, a Board of Directors was established under Kathy’s leadership. Kathy continued to find donors and sponsors for the children, and to speak tirelessly about the needs of AHOPE and the children. She wrote hundreds, perhaps thousands of thank you notes and inspired others to commit to helping HIV+ children.

As the pediatric anti-retroviral drugs became available in Ethiopia and adoption became an option for AHOPE’s children, AAI worked with AHOPE to find adoptive families for children who only a short time before we had no future. To date, we have placed over 100 HIV+ children for adoption and more are somewhere in the process. The scope of AHOPE’s mission has greatly expanded in the last several years to include education and community based services and the organization looks forward to a promising future.
(Kathy Olson, outgoing AHOPE Executive Director with Tom Starko, incoming Executive Director)
To learn more about AHOPE, visit their website at this link.

1 comment:

  1. Wow! What an amazing history!! Thanks for sharing it!!