Janine Maxwell Finds Heart In Africa
Nonprofit serves as voice for widows, orphans and street kids.
by Patti Ghezzi
February 19, 2009
"I was selling Cornflakes and Diet Coke, and I met kids who were eating from garbage cans," Maxwell recalls. "I went home to my nice everything, but my whole world was flipped upside down."
The self-described Type A personality wanted to fix the problems she witnessed, but she soon realized how overwhelming the challenges were. She read Atlanta-based Christian author Bruce Wilkinson's book, The Dream Giver, in which he discussed his dream of doing something about the AIDS epidemic in Africa.
"I stalked him," Maxwell jokes. Soon she and her family were spending nine weeks in Africa with his humanitarian organization, Heart for Africa.
In 2006, Wilkinson enlisted Janine and her husband, Ian, to take over. They relocated to Alpharetta with their two kids in tow. Maxwell left the marketing business behind and turned her attention to something she had never done before: running a nonprofit organization.
Heart for Africa volunteers work in Swaziland and Kenya. They bring groups of volunteers from the United States to work alongside homes that care for children, helping them work toward sustainability. The volunteers dig wells, plant gardens, paint buildings, repair roofs and complete other projects that enable these children's homes to provide for the needs of the kids who will grow up there. "We try to help the home become a place where kids come to live, not to die," Maxwell says.
Since 2003, the organization has taken 4,500 men, women and children to Africa. In Swaziland, a country ravaged by AIDS but where malaria is not a threat, children as young as 3 are welcome to accompany their parents. In Kenya, children must be at least 13. Maxwell's kids, ages 12 and 14, have traveled extensively with the group and consider the kids growing up in the children's homes their friends. "They think of the whole thing as a great adventure," Maxwell says. "They just think it's really neat."
Her children, who once lived in high style with trips to Hawaii, luxury hotels, fancy cars and a big house, are now loathe to buy new clothes because they want the money to go to their friends in Africa.
For Maxwell, the leap from leading a profit-driven company to running a nonprofit has been full of surprises. "It's the thinking," says Maxwell, noting that as a businesswoman she had an easy time partnering with other companies because everyone had the same bottom line: money. "In the nonprofit world, nobody likes to work together," she says. "Everybody is doing their own thing."
Heart for Africa is careful not to veer from its mission. The group doesn't build medical clinics or churches, because other groups are doing those things, Maxwell says. Her business background keeps her focused. "What we're really good at is setting expectations and managing expectations," she says.
She is proud that the organization keeps its overhead costs to just 7 percent. And though fund-raising in a down economy is tough, Heart for Africa has been fortunate, reeling in its biggest donation ever, a million dollars in matching funds, just as the economy fell into decline. " Now is the time to give," says Maxwell, who doesn't toss and turn at night over money. "People around us are worried, but we are not worried."
Instead, Maxwell, who detailed her personal journey in her 1996 book It's Not Okay with Me, thinks of the more than 30,000 children living on the streets in Nairobi and the fact that three-quarters of the girls 16 to 24 in Swaziland don't know AIDS is a sexually transmitted disease.
Christine Turner, president of a Denver-based public relations firm, was inspired by Maxwell's book and traveled to Kenya with Heart for Africa in 2007. Impressed with Maxwell's " solution-oriented leadership," she has since traveled twice more and now sits on Heart for Africa's board of directors.
"Janine Maxwell is one of the most compassionate leaders of our time," Turner says. "She is a voice for orphans, widows and street kids in sub-Saharan Africa and has an amazing gift to educate us through hard facts on poverty and AIDS."
Friends sometimes ask Maxwell why she puts her energy into Africa's children when so many U.S. and Canadian children have needs. "Yes, we have our own poverty, but not to the same degree, not on the same scale," Maxwell responds. "As human beings, we have to say, ' What if that were my child?'"
Some wonder how she can spend so much time in Swaziland and Kenya and not get depressed or want to bring the children she meets back to Alpharetta. "The kids are happy," she says. "As much as we look at it and we are sad, they don't know any differently. ... A lot of people do want to adopt the kids and bring them back, but I don't; I would rather live with them and be joyful with them."
She no longer thinks of the children orphaned by AIDS in Africa as a problem she will fix single-handedly, yet she is amazed at what a small group of volunteers can accomplish. "We can't save them all," she says. "I'm responsible for me and what I do, and I can do something."