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Charlotte woman works to save African orphans

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Meghann Gunderman spends many mornings and nights Skyping with people a world away in Tanzania about the problems of orphans and abandoned children, challenges that seem inconceivable from the comfort of her south Charlotte office.

When the orphans turn 5, Gunderman said, most are turned out of the institutions they’ve been raised in. There isn’t enough space or resources to keep them all. If they don’t have extended family who can take them in, the orphans face malnutrition, disease and the most basic lack of all: no one to care for them.

Gunderman’s goal is to change that by sending as many of the children as she can to boarding schools until they finish high school. A Charlotte native and 2001 graduate of Charlotte Country Day School, Gunderman left a job with an investment bank in New York City and in 2007 founded The Foundation for Tomorrow, which now provides for and educates 90 Tanzanian orphans.

In addition to her non-profit work, Gunderman, 29, is also a “Global Shaper” selected by the World Economic Forum to help come up with solutions to problems facing young people. This week, she’ll take her experiences to Davos, Switzerland, where she’ll represent young people around the globe on a panel at the prestigious WEF, an annual gathering of thousands of elite business and political leaders.

“It gives us some credibility – that what we’ve been doing is respected and innovative,” Gunderman said. She’ll speak on a panel that includes the CEO of the Coca-Cola Co. and the chairman of the World Economic Forum.

Her foundation has raised more than $2 million to date, Gunderman said, from sources including donations and corporate grants. She spends much of her time raising funds in Charlotte, New York and Chicago.

“I’m a hustler, out on the streets, trying to find people interested in investing in education and Africa who believe in serving orphaned and vulnerable kids,” Gunderman said.

She shares office space with her mother Kathleen Hessert’s sports marketing company in a nondescript complex on Pineville-Matthews Road. Gunderman peppers her speech with business words such as “industry agnostic” and “actionable items,” but also with Millennial Generation expressions such as “Insanity, right?”

“A young person like this, with this kind of commitment, is just truly inspirational,” said Lou Collins, chairman of the board of The Foundation for Tomorrow. His day job is chief financial officer for Charlotte-based human resources and benefits company Infinisource. Collins met Gunderman through her mother four years ago.

“I said to my wife when I got home, this person is 25 years old and she’s done more to contribute to society than I have in my 50 years,” said Collins, who volunteered to serve on her board and help with the group’s finances.

‘A kid is a kid’

Gunderman went to Country Day for the first 13 years of her school life. When college came, she was ready to see the wider world, and her parents agreed. They told Gunderman they would cover the cost of her education if she went to college outside the Carolinas, an offer she promptly took up.

She chose the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. When she needed to study outside Scotland for her International Relations and Human Geography major, she chose Africa.

Gunderman volunteered to work at an orphanage, where she was struck by the children she met – both their hardships and their joy.

“I think there’s this image for some people who’ve never traveled to the developing world that there’s these children, they’re sad, they’ve got distended bellies and flies on their face, and it’s just not the case,” she said. “You see smiles, you see kids wanting to talk to you. A kid is a kid is a kid.”

When she graduated in 2005 and took a full-time job with Barclays in New York City, memories of the children stuck with her. Gunderman asked some people she’d kept in touch with in Africa about the children, and discovered many would be turned out of their orphanages onto the streets at age 5.

But there was an alternative: boarding school, if they could afford it. Gunderman started soliciting people she knew, including in Charlotte, and raised money to put some of the kids in those schools.

“Three kids turned into five kids turned into six kids,” she said. Gunderman soon incorporated the group as a charity and left her job to run the foundation full time.

Hoping to help more

Now, The Foundation for Tomorrow has two employees in the U.S., Gunderman and Kaitlin Rogers. Six people, including four Tanzanians, work for the group full time in Tanzania.

The foundation is committed to providing for the children’s needs until they graduate and hopefully head off to universities. It’s an average commitment of 12 years for each child. The foundation says the cost of each child’s education and room and board for a year is about $1,500.

The foundation also runs a teacher training program for Tanzanians, a life skills program for the students, and is building a computer learning center in the Arumeru community in northeast Tanzania.

Gunderman recently got engaged and plans to get married this summer. She still spends about three months of the year in Africa and hopes to expand the foundation to serve more children.

She said she’s driven by the resilience of the people she’s met in Africa, from children making soccer balls out of trash to men pedaling goats to market on bikes for the chance to earn 50 cents.

“You see people with so little doing so much,” she said. “When you see that it makes you reflect inward and think, well if they’re doing that with what they have, what am I capable of doing?”

Portillo: 704-358-5041; On Twitter @ESPortillo
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