Like most 9-year-olds, Emelia Boki enjoys splashing in the water on a hot summer day, as she did recently at a Bel Air family's pool.
Back home in Africa, however, she keeps her distance from the waters of the Zambezi River, which flows through the small village of mud huts in the bush country outside the town of Katima Mulilo in the eastern panhandle of Namibia.
"There are crocodiles or hippos there," says Emelia, who visited this summer with a Harford family. As she speaks, she covers her face in shyness.
But there are greater dangers than hippopotamuses and crocodiles in Emelia's native land.
Emelia would be more likely to fall victim to the hunger or disease -- including AIDS -- that cut life expectancy in that part of the world to less than 30 years.
But because of the missionary work of Mount Zion United Methodist Church in Churchville, Emelia has a far greater chance of thriving.
The 650-member church is the driving force behind the construction and operation of the Children of Zion Village, a 17-acre farm and orphanage in Namibia where Emelia and 52 other children live.
Lisa McLaughlin is co-chairwoman of the nonprofit charitable corporation established by the church to build the facility. She has seen the suffering of the kids coming to the orphanage.
McLaughlin, the wife of the church's pastor, Craig McLaughlin, said some of the children are infants. Others are teenagers.
"They all have endured extreme hardships," she said. "Several have been rescued from child slavery. Some have been abused, both physically and sexually."
An 8-year-old boy Lisa McLaughlin called Albert was found sleeping in a truck tire and suffering from malaria. His parents had died of AIDS, and an uncle assigned to care for him sold the boy into slavery, she said.
Most of the children at the orphanage have lost their parents to AIDS and, like Emelia, survived by wandering from village to village seeking handouts from residents who didn't always have enough food for their own children.
All of the children were assigned to the home by the local magistrate. "That's the only way we get kids," said Lisa McLaughlin.
Mount Zion Church has paid for the construction of the $200,000 children's home near Katima Mulilo. Photos depict a structure that looks like a 1960s-era motel and is about the size of many of the new homes popping up in the Baltimore metropolitan area. Church members also pay $11,000 a month in operating expenses.
Dozens of church members and others have traveled to Namibia -- at their own expense -- to help run the home and teach the children.
The Children of Zion Village, the formal name of the orphanage, is the brainchild of Benedict Schwartz, 59, the head of a Havre de Grace software company who attends Mount Zion.
"After reading a magazine article in May of 2000 about the plight of homeless kids around the world, I felt that something had to be done," he said. "I felt their grief and I began to pray."
Before long, a tribal family donated 17 acres to Children of Zion Inc., established by the church. The children's home opened in January 2003.
Lisa McLaughlin, who has made several trips to the home, was scheduled to leave again this morning with her daughters Sarah, 18, Amy, 15, and Hannah, 11. Craig McLaughlin will join them in October. Sarah, who graduated from C. Milton Wright High School last spring, will teach until next summer. The rest of her family will return in November.
Reflecting on her involvement, Lisa McLaughlin said: "It is no secret that my heart has been stolen and a big portion of my heart has remained there with the children in the home."
She added: "The children there have become a part of our family. Without the orphanage, many of them would not be alive."
Emelia refers to the McLaughlins' daughters as her sisters and to their son, David, as her brother.
Lisa McLaughlin said Emelia was sent to the orphanage last year by the town magistrate after it was noticed that she was being neglected by the woman who was supposed to care for her.
Emelia was 8. And she was on her own.
Her body showed signs of malnutrition. She was covered with softball-size sores stemming from a condition later diagnosed as chronic bullous disease, a potentially disfiguring ailment.
She was on her way to becoming another example of Namibia's low life expectancy.
But her lot has changed.
"At the home, she began to gain weight and her health improved dramatically," said Lisa McLaughlin.
But local doctors couldn't treat her sores.
That's what brought Emelia to Bel Air in July. The McLaughlins served as foster parents during her stay while she was treated by a dermatologist.
The sores have healed, and only slight traces of scar tissue remain.
Emelia also was to leave this morning, with the McLaughlins, to return home.
"Overall, about 40 people from this church have gone over there to help out," said Craig McLaughlin, Mount Zion's pastor for 18 years.