Called to Africa

Jessica Maslen’s tour with the Peace Corps turned into a calling to care for the neglected orphans of a small village in Zambia

By Sara Kelm

Did it start with a party for orphan children who packed the yard in front of a small African house to play with Frisbees and tents, coloring books and crayons? Or did it start with a friendship, the excitement of two people who grew up thousands of miles apart sharing the same vision? Did it start with an application and a hope? Maybe it started years ago, when a little girl felt a tug in her heart toward Africa. She couldn’t say why or how, but somehow she knew that she would make her home on that faraway continent. Now, two decades later, Jessica Maslen is working in the Zambian district of Mansa to build an orphanage and school for the community and people she has grown to love.

Victims of the AIDS epidemic

After graduating from George Fox University in 2007 with a degree in biology, Maslen knew she wanted to work overseas in some capacity. Enter the Peace Corps. She hoped to be placed in Africa, but would have been happy with wherever God sent her.

God wanted her in Africa.

In 2008, Maslen arrived in Zambia to work as a forestry extension officer. Her job was to provide agriculture and health programming for the community, teaching villagers how to use the land effectively and stay healthy.

Like many African communities, the area is besieged by the AIDS epidemic. People do not understand how AIDS is transmitted, so a stigma is attached to the disease and individuals fear getting tested. A positive test makes them pariahs. If they die, their children become outcasts, blemishes and throwaways.

This is why every community needs people like Francis Mwansa. Maslen met Francis through his work at the Peace Corps regional office. It wasn’t long before she became invested in his other full-time job – that of pastor in a community where orphans depend upon him.

Francis and his wife Loveness support more than 50 orphans in one way or another: tutoring, paying for school fees, even placing the children in safe homes if they are alone or abused. They have taken in children who were thrown down latrines, neglected by their extended families or forced to work instead of going to school.

Maslen began going on rounds with Francis. She was able to see firsthand how the orphans were cared for and what they needed, and she started to catch sight of his vision: a place where these children could learn and live together as part of their own community instead of being outcasts or burdens.

The first step: coloring books and stuffed animals

A small toy puts a smile on the face of a Zambian orphan.

A small toy puts a smile on the face of a Zambian orphan.

Every July, Francis and Loveness host a party for the orphans with the small bonuses they receive, bringing all of the children together from their scattered homes with grandparents or unrelated families for a celebration. Maslen had an idea. What if they provided toys for the children to take home? She got in touch with her contacts at the Peace Corps and back home in Newberg, and asked them for donations.

She got them. Normally stoic children smiled as they held coloring books and stuffed animals. They played with Frisbees and climbed inside tents. For one brief afternoon they were allowed to be children instead of orphans. One would assume they could be both, but it’s nearly impossible in a place like Zambia.

The party brought Maslen further into Francis’s dream of an orphanage and school. “Francis is great with people and well-respected,” says Maslen, “but he doesn’t know English well or have the administrative skills” – a necessity when starting a large nonprofit organization. That’s where Maslen comes in.

She started working on getting the organization registered to apply for grants, but still she wondered if this is what God had for her. “I asked God, ‘Do you really want me to do this?’” Maslen recalls. Within 24 hours, they received their first donation of six large boxes of books for their future library.

Maslen started organizing the resources they already had. Local businesses donated cement blocks. The head man of the tribe gave them the land they asked for and more – 15 acres altogether. The community and traditional leaders began to rally behind Maslen and Francis, and their excitement grew.

Thinking big: a place to call home

Francis stands on the foundation of what will soon be the Busalo School for orphans.

Francis stands on the foundation of what will soon be the Busalo School for orphans.

Last September, they broke ground on the first building of the Busalo School. Busalo means “to choose.” “People [in Zambia] don’t understand. Orphans are on the bottom of the list; they are the throwaways, a waste of resources,” Maslen says. “But we are choosing to love these children and make them a priority in our lives and community.”

Maslen has been thrust into a mission field that she could not have expected. “I don’t see myself as a missionary; I just see myself as someone helping the people,” she says. “When you are helping people and meeting their needs, you really are ministering to them and they see Jesus in you.” So she’s still in Zambia, months after her Peace Corps term ended, because she is now part of the vision.

They are starting with the school. Next will be an orphanage to house the children with no place to go. Then an agricultural center, where Maslen can use her biology degree to teach about vaccinating chickens. Finally, a library, with books for all ages and programs for children and women. The possibilities are endless, and Maslen feels called to be part of it. When she wondered, “Why here? Why not where my friends are?” Maslen clearly heard God saying, “Your job is to help get this started; your job is here.”

Now Maslen is talking to village leaders, contractors, the African government and community liaisons. She’s speaking to churches and Peace Corps volunteers. She’s making a difference. Who knows how it all started? All that matters is Maslen is doing God’s work, one orphan at a time.