PHOTO: Meghann Gunderman Sehorn started The Foundation For Tomorrow to help children in Tanzania get an education.
Local nonprofits support global causes.
by Michelle Boudin
It’s not always easy to see beyond the relative comfort of the Charlotte bubble many of us enjoy. But for some Queen City women, learning about the plight of people halfway around the world was so powerful, it prompted them to start nonprofits anchored right here in Charlotte, with help from their local networks.
The Foundation For Tomorrow
Meghann Gunderman Sehorn was a lifer at Charlotte Country Day School before moving to the United Kingdom for college. In 2004, as part of her dissertation, she spent two months in Tanzania volunteering at an orphanage where she was struck by the fact that many kids there didn’t have access to school. “I’d been given every educational opportunity, and I was well-traveled, but I’d never been to a developing country and I realized I knew nothing. It was an ‘aha’ moment where you realize you couldn’t possibly understand the reality that exists for most people. It shook me to my core.”
Back in the U.S. after graduation, she had a job lined up at an investment banking firm but decided to travel back to Tanzania with a group of girlfriends before starting work. Back at the orphanage, she fell in love with a set of young triplets and wanted to figure out a way to provide an education for them.
“I wrote a long email to friends and family asking for help, and I had an overwhelming response. So in 2005, we informally started putting these children in school. I kept talking about them to anybody who would listen. That was the inspiration for The Foundation For Tomorrow. Being a geography major, I felt like geography shouldn’t dictate how far an individual goes or the quality of education they receive.”
In 2006, Sehorn launched TFFT. The nonprofit works to put orphaned and vulnerable Tanzanian children in school and trains teachers and school management teams to create better learning environments. Now, TFFT is building an interactive center (similar to Charlotte’s Imaginon) with a literacy lab, a computer center and more. It’s set to open in March 2023. Sehorn helps oversee that and much of the foundation’s work, splitting her time between her homes in SouthPark and Tanzania. The new mom says she’s grateful her hometown has supported her every step of the way.
“It’s pretty cool. Charlotte people really got behind it from the beginning and have stayed a part of it. Groups of people come over with me and run the Kilimanjaro Half Marathon every February to raise money, and we have an annual vision trip every September where people can come and see the lives they are impacting. A group of Charlotte ladies joined me over there right before the shutdown happened in 2020.”
Sehorn is still in touch with the triplets. Now 20, they all went through the TFFT program and are thriving.
Sehorn says she never imagined a college assignment 20 years ago could have such an enduring impact.
“I surrounded myself with a lot of people who knew more than I did, and they helped make this what it is today. I’m the bullhorn, but it’s because of the team.”
Healing Hands of Joy
Before she moved to Charlotte in 2018, Allison Shigo was working in development for a production company in New York City. She began work on a documentary about Ethiopian women living with fistula, a devastating injury suffered during childbirth that often leaves women ostracized in their communities.
“I fell in love with the story, and I begged my boss to let me go to Ethiopia,” Shigo says. “Over eight weeks, we went deep into the countryside trying to find these women in hiding.” Shigo ended up as a co-producer on A Walk to Beautiful, the Emmy-award winning documentary that was bought by PBS and seen worldwide.
The work haunted Shigo. “I was a C-section baby born in New Hampshire, breached and upside down, and if my mother had been in Ethiopia, I probably wouldn’t be here.” Fistula was eradicated in America in the last century, so Shigo didn’t understand why women were still suffering. “I could not turn my back when there were so many women suffering needlessly.”
In 2009, Shigo founded Healing Hands of Joy, the nonprofit she runs from her Dilworth office that works to help Ethiopian fistula survivors and train them as ambassadors to help prevent other women in their villages from enduring the same fate.
Shigo typically travels to Ethiopia twice a year to meet with her team of 40 there. Thanks to Healing Hands of Joy, more than 2,100 women have received counseling, education, financial help and skills training. Another 1,500 male family members have also gone through the program. Just last year, Healing Hands of Joy opened its fourth training center and launched a partnership with Ethiopia’s Federal Ministry of Health with the goal of eliminating fistula by 2025. “That’s the big-picture dream,” Shigo says. “I never imagined ending [fistula] could happen in my lifetime, but now it really could happen.”
Much of the work is happening thanks to a small-but-mighty group of Charlotte women who serve on the U.S.-based board of Healing Hands of Joy — the same women who convinced Shigo to relocate to the South.
“I was invited down to Charlotte every year to another nonprofit luncheon, and I liked coming. I had been in New York City for more than 20 years and was ready for a change, and I’m so glad I made the move. The Charlotte community has really embraced this cause, from supporters and donors and our board members. I’m so grateful.” SP