Jennifer Fill-Crooks always knew she would adopt children. Even after she had two stepchildren, a niece and two biological children, she and her husband, Mike, decided to adopt a daughter from China. That experience opened Crooks’ eyes and heart to the struggles of orphan children in developing countries.
“I’ve always had a passion for orphans and children without families,” Crooks said. She adopted her daughter, Sophie, from China back in 2003.
Crooks used her connections in the horse world to help start the organization, Uryadi’s Village, named after the horse that took her to several top-level championships. When she acquired the horse, it had already been named “Uryadi,” which in Hindu means “festival to empower children.” Empowerment to orphan children is exactly what she wanted Uryadi’s Village to give.
A home for children
After learning and witnessing the needs of children there, Crooks decided that Uryadi’s Village would work in Ethiopia.
“The level of poverty there is like nothing you’ve seen,” Crooks explained. “Orphans are the last to get resources and are considered a drain. Five million Ethiopian children are orphans—the highest in the world. We wanted to switch the paradigm where orphans contribute to their community.”
She started Uryadi’s Village in 2014 to support Wolayta Village, named after the local people there. The village is about two hours from the nearest city, Hawassa. She and her team stepped in when an international adoption agency vacated their facility in the town of Soddo. At the time, there were 18 children, 15 of whom were babies. The facility, which is where the children lived up until last April, was a concrete compound.
“It’s not where kids should live,” Crooks said. Now, Uryadi’s Village cares for 60 children, 21 of whom are younger than 1 year. And they recently moved into the first homes of Uryadi’s Village. Currently, international adoption is prohibited in Ethiopia outside of a medical necessity. Uryadi’s Village encourages local adoption and fostering and supports the families.
Uryadi’s Village has the support of the government, who gave them a land grant. Crooks’ construction team, led by Sandpoint local Erik Keller, completed a home for the children in March. Keller builds using cob construction, which uses natural materials for building. The plan is to have eight more homes. Each home has a house mother to look after the children.
“We’re trying to stay away from institutions,” Crooks said. Poverty and instability are so widespread that babies are often abandoned. Crooks recently hired a house mother who was about to do the same. “Now she can stay with the baby.”
Uryadi’s Village is also self-sustainable. They are using permaculture techniques to grow the vegetables that thrive in their ecosystem, and the team is working with local villagers and teaching the children about gardening as well.
“We did a lot of research and didn’t want to create a foreign dependence,” she said.
A Sandpoint connection
Crooks’ team consists of Sandpoint and Ethiopian members. The team came together in a variety of ways. She and Sarah Klintworth were friends. She met Keller, the builder, at Evans Brothers and found Scott Rulander, videographer, online. She met Laurent Pelletier, their CFO, at a permaculture course in California who later moved to Sandpoint for the organization. She met her medical staff: Nichole Grimm, Traci Schmidt, Mary Quinn Hurst and Gina Woodruff, through the care they gave to her children with special needs.
Sponsorships and karma
Uryadi’s Village runs several sponsorship programs to fundraise for the children and their homes.
“The houses go up one at a time. It’s karma—the money comes in as we need it,” Crooks said.
Uryadi’s Village also relies on a children’s sponsorship program. Initially, the first three child sponsorships came from former horse champions.
“Other organizations have multiple sponsors for a child. We work hard to create a relationship. [With us] they’re a family,” Crooks said. “As we place children into foster homes, new beds open up. At some point, we’ll have to say no, but there’s nowhere else to go—how can we say no? So far, we’ve been able to make it work.”
Crooks is also establishing a school sponsorship program where people can help pay for 60 children to attend school at $20 per month.
“We want to give back to the community by keeping kids in school. [The sponsorship] would buy supplies and help supplement the family income so the kids don’t have to beg.”
Crooks would also like to establish a sister city program with Sandpoint schools. “We could have a pen pal program with some of the classes here and also broaden the horizon of some of our high schoolers.”
Family from across the world
Crooks has 14 children, nine of whom are adopted: five from China and four from Ethiopia. She adopted her youngest, Tegan, from Ethiopia last year on an emergency medical visa that saved his life.
“He was our surprise baby. He came to the orphanage on the last day of my visit last June. He had neurological issues from cerebral palsy and was dying. With us, he started to come alive, and I just knew he was the littlest Crooks,” she said.
For more information about how you can help Uryadi’s Village, visit UryadisVillage.org.