Master's thesis leads to successful non-profit organization

Jake Gentry traveled to Tanzania in 2008 to conduct research for his master's thesis about the impact of refugee camps on their host communities. Emotionally touched by the many abandoned children in the camps, Gentry and his friends started a non-profit organization that supports orphanages becoming self-sufficient and sustainable.

Their organization, called Orphans to Ambassadors, provides existing orphanages with sustainable technologies and teaches the children and local community how to use them so they have the ability and empowerment to rise out of poverty.

"Along with providing sustainable technologies, we want the children to learn about these technologies, how to install them, operate them and maintain them," said Gentry, who earned both a bachelor's and master's degree in geography from Appalachian. He now serves as the organization's president. "We want these children to have unique skills to contribute back to society as the green revolution moves through Africa."

Orphans to Ambassadors works with orphanages in Tanzania, Sierra Leone, Kenya, Cambodia and Haiti. It provides solar panels installed on roofs, rainwater harvesting barrels and rocket stoves, which increase wood fuel efficiency for cooking by 90 percent. The organization also provides seeds so the children can grow their own food.

Lots of Appalachian help

"None of this would have happened without Appalachian," said Gentry. His attitude for service, he explained, began in Appalachian's Emerging Leaders Program, in which he participated as a freshman. "The program is designed to build your leadership skills and confidence. It did that for me."

Education abroad trips to Australia, Ecuador, India and Namibia shaped his world view. An appreciation for Appalachian's close interaction with faculty kept him on campus for his graduate studies, and Gentry credits his faculty mentor, Dr. Chris Badurek, for leading him into his research-turned-philanthropic endeavor.

Funded by a grant from the Office of Student Research, Gentry studied Rwanda refugee populations for six weeks for his graduate thesis "Refugee Impacts on Host Communities in Western Tanzania: A GIS and Mixed-Methods Geographic Analysis." It later won Appalachian's Cratis D. Williams Thesis Award.

While in Tanzania, he built a relationship with some of the street children and community leaders and became inspired to help in any way he could. He also met Tabitha Martin, a relief worker with a dream to create a self-sufficient orphanage for the children left behind when refugees left the area. He and Martin kept in touch. After he graduated and started working full time as a risk analyst with FEMA, Gentry started raising money to create what he and Martin envisioned.

Bringing others on board

Excited about his idea, Gentry's friends and classmates got on board. Seven Appalachian students and alumni serve on Orphans to Ambassadors' board of directors or as key volunteers, including his partner Suzanne Fossum who earned her bachelor's degree in psychology in 2008.

"Children in the orphanages often have to scavenge for food. Even if we help just one small group, we're making a difference in their lives," Fossum said.

Senior Callie Strother, a communication major from Sanford, recently interned with the organization. She also worked with classmates in her Principles of Fundraising class to sell "Angels for Infants" at $1 apiece to help with the cause.

"I was impressed by the professionalism and organization," Strother said of Orphans to Ambassadors. "You can tell that it's more than just a humanitarian project. It's a business and organization working to produce real results."

Plans for the Future

"I would love to have 50 or 60 orphanages that we sponsor around the world in refugee- and conflict-affected areas," said Gentry of his long-term goals. "Right now, we are just working with existing orphanages, calling it our testing and research phase because we are trying all kinds of sustainable technologies to see what works best."

He and Fossum hope to live in Tanzania full time someday.