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California-based nonprofit leader returned home to Ethiopia to help his village. 'I need to do something'

Acsah Lemma, The Sacramento Bee on

Published in News & Features

It wasn’t until 2005 when Seifu Ibssa traveled back to his hometown of Acheber, Ethiopia.

In the same pond he would fetch water from as a child was a young boy doing the same. Wandering hyenas and cattle contaminated the water shared among the village.

“It’s during that time my eyes opened to how miserable the situation is in my village. People lack education. People did not have a place to deliver babies,” Ibssa said.

Eight months after that trip, he returned to Acheber, this time with the supplies to build his village a spring to provide fresh water. They called it the Kerebign Water Project.

During the same trip, he asked for land to build a school for the village. This became Ajo Preschool, the first of many schools Ibssa would operate.

These were the debut acts of Ibssa’s organization, East African Village Outreach, or EAVO, the Sacramento, California-based nonprofit he co-founded alongside his eldest brother and others. While EAVO was created out of a need for change and a desire to help, it was Ibssa’s own experiences as a child, and later as an adult, that led him down this path.

A village boy in Acheber

In a mountainous village, deep in the brisk Ethiopian countryside, a young Ibssa watched as the women in his community struggled to diagnose his mother’s sickness. There was no hospital, no clinic and no doctors to guide them. All they could do was harvest various herbal plants and pray one of them would heal her.

These plants had no effect, and at the age of three or four, he lost his mother. His age is an estimate because in his village, you don’t keep track of someone’s age, just the date they were born.

By the age of 11 or 12, his stepmother, wanting him to have a better life, persuaded his father to allow Ibssa to travel to the capital city of Addis Ababa, where he could attend school, an opportunity unavailable in his village.

Ibssa, being the son of a shepherd, had never left his village, and was fascinated by the new sights and sounds.

He stayed with one of his older sisters in the city, but she had no money to spare for even a pair of pants for him to wear. His oldest brother, Hailu, gave her a $10 Ethiopian birr, with which Ibssa was able to start his journey toward education.

“I was so hungry for education,” he said.

Not only was Ibssa hungry for education, he was also malnourished. His sister was poor and Ibssa was “always, always hungry.” Eventually, he said he moved in with his eldest brother and sister-in-law, but there he faced even worse treatment by his sister-in-law.

“No matter what, I always continued my education … I was determined to be like my older brother,” Ibssa said.

A new life in the US

In 1982, Ibssa immigrated to the United States with the help of his older brother, who he saw as a father figure.

While the move allowed him to experience “many wonderful things,” the novelty died quickly. After four months, he felt the pangs of hunger again, and Ibssa was desperate to go home.

This time, however, Ibssa had another person he could rely on. He had been attending a local American Baptist Church in Inglewood on Sundays, and whenever the hunger would become unbearable, Ibssa would walk to the church and tell the pastor he was hungry. The pastor would take out one of his business cards and write on the back “feed this man whatever he wants and I will pay you back.” A nearby restaurant would accept the card and Ibssa would eat his fill.

The day before he was set to go back to Ethiopia, it was that same church and pastor that told him they had set aside $5,000 for him to attend community college.

This aid propelled him to Santa Monica College which would eventually lead him to graduate with a bachelor’s in business administration from San Jose State in 1992.

With his degree he was able to obtain a full-time accounting position and balanced his work with being a husband and father to four sons.


EAVO’s journey from 2006

“If I did not have that background of growing up in the countryside where there’s no education, if I didn’t go through those rough times with my sister in law, if I didn’t go through the rough times in Los Angeles being hungry, I don’t think I would have the heart to be sensitive to other people or even to start this organization,” said Ibssa.

EAVO, officially launched in 2006, has helped countless children just like him have access to education, clean water and more.

Since its beginnings, the organization has built five springs in Acheber, nine schools in the region and sponsored 98 students to pursue university.

More than 90 are now employed with positions such as teachers, bankers and nurses.

One of the graduating students from 2023 had attended Ajo Preschool when he was a child and was supported by EAVO throughout his education journey. Now, he works for one of the top national banks in Ethiopia.

Another was abandoned by her parents because of a deformity. She went to the organization and asked for them to give her a chance, now she’s one of the head teachers at EAVO’s Lana Reese school.

EAVO also contributes to other aspects of the people of Acheber’s lives, including donating 68 mosquito nets. In that region of Ethiopia, malaria is “still the leading killer disease of children below 10 years and expectant mothers in Africa,” according to its website.

Ibssa’s desire to help extends to his community in the United States, too. Solomon Ketema, a member of the Bethel Evangelical Ethiopian Church that Ibssa attends, is just one of many that he has helped.

When Ketema was preparing for his wife and kids to immigrate to the U.S., he wanted to buy a car but knew nothing about credit cards or loans.

Ibssa loaned him $4,000 so that he could purchase the car and be ready for his family’s arrival, said Ketema.

“It’s very hard to find somebody like Seifu,” Ketema said.

What’s next for EAVO

Now age 65 or 66, Ibssa said helping others succeed is what gets him moving, “I never get tired of this work.”

He has many goals for EAVO’s future, the most important one is focusing his efforts on educating the young girls of Acheber.

The springs was a major help to get more girls to school, since they can “run to school, not the river,” Ibssa said. But he believes more can be done.

Though EAVO relies on donations and grants, limiting the funding, Ibssa is committed to helping in any way that he can.

“If I become a millionaire that’s what I would do,” he said.

Ibssa said he is not a wealthy person, but what he can provide the children of Acheber is something he was not able to have at their age: an education.


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