6 min read

Alex & KBR Ethiopia

Alex now is our regional manager for our KBR pilot effort in Ethiopia.

I first met Alex on a vision trip to Ethiopia in 2007 before my family and I moved to live there. Our primary contact in country was driving us around, answering all our questions while giving us a taste of the culture. She kept telling us about this one young man she’d known since he was little, Alex. He had been away from the capital city of Addis Ababa for some time now, ever since he got out of prison. He was in his early twenties and a couple years before had been falsely accused, taking the wrap for something a group of his friends had done—though he had put himself in the wrong place with the wrong people.

She wished we could meet him, and so did we. So much of our hope in Ethiopia was to mentor at-risk youth, to raise up local young leaders to be the one’s who changed their communities and nation. When I started to hear about Alex my spirit leapt. If only I could have the chance to connect with him, but last he had been heard from by our contact he was hours away down country.

Then, we were on one of our drives through the city, amidst hundreds of the usual passers by over the medians and around the streets when our contact stopped suddenly, rolled down her window and burst out with a thrill, “Alex!”

He had just come back into the city that week we happened to be there. And here was our chance encounter on the streets in the middle of this huge, overly populated city. I had only a brief interaction with him at first, but I could see what was within him, knowing he was different.

See, Alex had grown up on the streets alone, living in a plastic house, since he was seven years old. His dad died when he was two and five years later when his mom re-married her new husband (as was fairly customary at the time) expected her to relinquish her kids and start anew with him. His story rocked me to my core and made my heart well up with tears. Thankfully, it was only the beginning and we were about to get to play a big part in his redemption story, and he in ours.

Sure and unsure at the same time, we invited Alex to move into our new home with us to stay in a room at the back of our compound. It was a huge unknown, challenging at many turns, and also one of the best decisions we ever made. Alex became family—that was one of the biggest keys to empowering him. He needed to belong.

I started mentoring Alex every day, and in turn he would show me/us around the streets of Addis Ababa. We’d walk miles and miles each day of some of the most impoverished streets, meeting both broken and amazing lives, learning how to love and empower them together.

My family and I could go on for hours with stories about Alex, and he will pop up more from time to time in this journey—as it wouldn’t be possible without him. But for now I want to share just one high risk/high reward “trust” story that both scared us and at the same time set everything in motion to see a movement of family and empowerment hit some of the most lowly streets not just in Ethiopia, but the world.


Trust is a big part of empowerment (and a big part of KBR), and it was a slippery slope we had to climb with Alex as well. Was Alex completely trustworthy? We weren’t sure yet. However, we usually have to give trust away to someone once or twice before we know what they’ll do with it. And even if they let us down, it’s worth it. Why? Because we can't truly empower someone without giving them a chance to fail. You can only hold someone's hand for so long. If you want to see them take a leap toward the potential you see inside them, you have to give them enough trust to give them opportunity, and enough opportunity where they might fail in small ways in order to succeed in big ones.

Starting over for our family in Ethiopia, we had very little in our home furniture wise and were living on a very meager budget. We didn’t know Alex well. We’d spent some time with him on our pre-move trips, mentored him upon arriving and now he had lived with us only a couple weeks. But our times walking the streets let me see how he handled even small things with integrity. We had about two hundred dollars left for our family until we had any check coming for two weeks. It wasn’t a lot but if we were careful we could use it wisely on groceries and transport until our next provision arrived. But then one day my wife and I both felt compelled to take another leap of faith in empowering Alex. It wasn’t a leap we were comfortable with per se, but we both knew that despite our very rational questions that we were supposed to go through with it.

We felt this urge to give Alex all the money our family had left, in cash, no strings attached. Insane, right?! We kind of thought so too. We had questions about what we would do for food, etc. the next two weeks, and to be honest we had big questions about how all that money all at once could affect Alex negatively. Coming from the streets with nothing, two hundred dollars cash could be like winning the lottery, something that breaks a lot of people. Alex was doing so well, we didn’t want to give him too much freedom too quickly. But, we also felt led to put our faith in Alex, to go all-in on him and give him a chance to be the leader and community catalyst we believed he could be.

So one night we went and grabbed all our cash, called Alex into the kitchen and said, “We’re supposed to give this to you. No strings attached. We love you unconditionally and we believe in you. Use it how you see best.” I’ll never forget those moments that followed. Alex didn’t jump up and down like he won the lottery, in fact, he barely even smiled. Instead, the love and belief we put inside him by putting that money in his hands made him tremble under the responsibility he felt. It broke him, but not in a bad way. He had never been trusted so freely before, without condition. And that trust empowered him to see the money or the opportunity in a very different way.

Over the next two weeks Alex primarily did two things with all that cash. First, he went to the bank and asked them to break it into single bills (which was thousands of the local “birr” currency). Then, he took the rest of the money and bought groceries and other household needs for our family and home—which he was now a part of—to help make it through the next couple weeks.

I’ll never forget the way Alex trembled in such a healthy way after being entrusted with so much responsibility. He felt the love and belief. Then, he took those single bills out every day and found purpose in valuing others who had grown up like him. And wouldn’t you know it, the love and value he gave away to so many people on the streets started to form something of a interconnected family—kids on the streets who called on him and looked to him like a dad—something Alex himself had never really had either. That investment—that trust—that went into empowering Alex was the very thing that helped him find his purpose, and his purpose became our link to giving the same to hundreds more throughout the streets of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

Alex is now our regional director for our KBR pilot program in Ethiopia. He's currently overseeing 29 small start up businesses among our first two waves of this KBR pilot. He's helping former street kids develop their business and groups of impoverished, hurting moms realize their value and build their businesses at the same time. We were given the opportunity to empower Alex, and now he's using this innovative, alternative economic system to empower others, and change the community in a much needed way.

Now, I don’t share this story so that you’ll go and recklessly give away your trust to empower someone. However, I do hope it helps you see a seed of possibility when one comes your way and why we should be looking for those perhaps “unlikely” people or counter-intuitive opportunities around us that beckon us to see beyond fear or results and freely invest our trust in their lives. You never know when one big, unconditional seed might birth a tree that bears a whole lot of fruit.