Desalech literally wanted to die. “I wept day and night,” she told me. “I kept asking for God to intervene and feed my seven children, or for me to join my husband. I put each of my children in God’s hands for Him to provide for them.”
When I met Desalech, she had recently lost her husband to AIDS. She was left pregnant with her seventh child at just 30 years old with no income, inheritance or way to provide for her family. She had not yet been tested for HIV; the fear of possibility was too overwhelming for her to bear.
I was struck by how young Desalech looked. Many of the women’s faces in Ethiopia were weathered beyond their years by childbirth and difficult physical work. Not Desalech’s. After 10 days in Africa with the Christian humanitarian organization World Vision, her face is the one I remember most clearly; it glowed.
After her husband died, a neighbor introduced Desalech to the World Vision staff working with her community. Her life began to change drastically. During our morning together, Desalech proudly showed me the small stoves she had learned to make to earn a living, introduced me to her seven healthy children all attending school, and pointed out the cow she had purchased that was now consistently providing food.
After playing in the small yard with her kids and exchanging lots of smiles, Desalech told me: “God has been good to me and my children. I cannot speak to the future of my children, but I know they are in God’s hands. I was in the darkness, but the darkness is gone and I am in the light.”
I believed Desalech. I saw the light on her face and in the faces of her children. Two years earlier she had asked God to end her own life in order to not see her children suffer; now it was clear He had provided in miraculous ways.
I left Desalech with an amazing sense of hope, and also urgency. She had seen her life turn around. But I could only imagine how many other women there were like Desalech who desperately needed help: life-saving help.
I had traveled to Ethiopia with a couple of other World Vision staff who worked solely with Team World Vision. They basically recruited people to run marathons in honor of people like Desalech in Africa, raising awareness and asking for financial support in the process. This marathon thing, to me, was an absolutely ridiculous idea.
In seventh grade, I was the girl who faked being sick to avoid running one mile in gym class. Chalk it up to all the classic reasons: self-consciousness, fear of failure, embarrassment. I dreaded that one mile so much that I probably wasn’t actually faking sickness at all. The thought of running for even 10 (OK, maybe 14) minutes, coupled with the resulting humiliation of it all, was enough to make me physically ill. Let’s just say that my aversion to sports did not improve throughout high school. Or college.
I tell you this so that you understand how absurd I sounded when after returning from Africa I called my parents on an average Sunday afternoon and announced that I was running a marathon. I did not have running shoes. I did not have a gym membership. I hands down did not run. I was in no way prepared for a physical challenge of this scale.
But after meeting Desalech, “absurd” didn’t seem to matter anymore.
So I ran the marathon. All 26.2 miles. I knew it would be hard, that people would tell me I was crazy, that it would take sacrifice and that some days I would want to quit. I didn’t know that it would change the way I feel about myself, that it would cultivate a discipline I had never had before, and that it would allow me—a twentysomething in Chicago—to physically relate to and help women like Desalech in such tangible ways.
Desalech didn’t quit. She let nothing—not even a disease as devastating as AIDS—stop her from caring for and loving her precious children. How could I let a little absurdity stop me?
Lauren now works for Team World Vision, lives in and loves Chicago, and placed 24,812 in the Chicago Marathon, and continues to run anyway.