When Jacqueline Villeneuve was 17, she founded the Zawadi la Tumaini Children's Home to house orphaned children in the African country of Kenya.
“From the moment I started working with orphaned children, I knew it was what I was destined to do,” said Villeneuve, now 23.
Five years later, the organization has grown to have an annual budget of $120,000 — 90 per cent of it raised exclusively in Sudbury — and 27 children call Zawadi la Tumaini home.
“We're just really happy to have the continued support of the Sudbury community,” said Villeneuve on Saturday night as she hosted the fifth annual A Night in Africa gala, her organization's largest fundraiser. “A lot of people, especially our corporate sponsors, have been contributing to our organization since I was 17 when I first started the organization.”
Held at the Cambrian College Student Centre, 270 people attended A Night in Africa — many sporting African-style clothing and face paint — including Sudbury MP Paul Lefebvre and Greater Sudbury Police Chief Paul Pedersen.
“What a truly eye-opening evening,” tweeted Pedersen on Saturday night. “Zawadi la Tumaini Children's Home (is) a local dream with global impact.”
Saturday night's gala featured an African buffet, an auction of African arts, crafts and fashions and live entertainment.
A beaming Villeneuve told Sudbury.com the event was well on its way to vastly exceeding its fundraising goal.
“This year, we exceeded our goal for fundraising even before the event happened,” she said. “Last year, we raised $38,000 in total from A Night in Africa. This year, with corporate sponsorships alone, we raised over $33,000.”
Villeneuve estimated that, by the time the event wrapped up and the figures were added up, they will have raised as much as $45,000.
It's a good thing, too, as Zawadi la Tumaini is currently expanding its programs beyond the home itself.
“We've expanded the community support program to educate youth in an effort to end sexual violence,” said Villeneuve. “We also have programs to provide eyeglasses to members of our community. So it's grown to be more than just a children's home.
“But we maintain those family values and run a corruption-free home to make it a safe place for orphaned children with no living relatives, which is very hard to come by.”
Next year, three children from the home are going off to university. It's also essential, said Villeneuve, to plan for contingencies in her annual operating budget.
“We have 27 kids, and you never know when an emergency surgery will be needed, or have something that comes up that needs emergency funds,” she said.
Villeneuve and a committee of five women work throughout the year to plan A Night in Africa. An additional 25 volunteers round out the team.
The community-driven initiative is also supported by the local arts community to create pieces for auction that are inspired by Africa.
Villeneuve also curates a selection of authentic African items for the auction. Sometimes, she even receives special requests from donors.
“I work with artisans there sometimes to get items for people who come to this event year after year,” she said. “They'll tell me if there's a dress I should bring for the silent auction.”
The organization also brought in Ottawa-based Caramel Latte Dance Crew to perform at the event for the second year in a row.
“Everyone definitely loves them,” said Villeneuve. “They pump everybody up.”
For Villeneuve, the support from the community that her organization receives — from individual donors to corporate sponsors — has been nothing short of overwhelming.
It's allowing Zawadi la Tumaini to continue to grow and, ultimately, Villeneuve hopes to make it the international charity of choice for Greater Sudbury.
“We're essentially making our donor base here in Sudbury rather than just wanting to spread everywhere,” she said. “It's been incredible to see that people in our community support the cause.”