Woman from N. Linthicum turns energy to Africa

Retired executive adopting boy from Tanzania, founding orphanage there

  • When Addie Houston, 59, was 5, she decided she would one day run an orphanage.
When Addie Houston, 59, was 5, she decided she would one day run… (Baltimore Sun photo by Amy…)
December 13, 2009|By Jonathan Pitts

There is nothing like a dream to create the future. Utopia today; flesh and blood tomorrow.

- Victor Hugo in "Les Miserables" (1862)

A lifetime ago, when she was a girl in North Linthicum, Addie Houston had a talk with her father, a successful engineer and inventor who traveled the world.

"Some children aren't as lucky as you are," she remembers him saying. "They have to grow up without parents. It's just something you ought to know."

The thought horrified Addie, then 5. She cried herself to sleep, but not before fixing a plan in her mind.

"I'm going to run an orphanage someday," she thought.

More than half a century later, Houston, a retired businesswoman who lives much of the year in Rehoboth Beach, Del., is about to realize that dream and then some. She's in the process of adopting a 6-year-old orphan from a small village in Tanzania - and of starting a home for 12 other orphans in the poverty-wracked African nation.

"It's hard to take too seriously the things I used to think were so important - the daily dramas, the striving to achieve professionally, the quest for material things," she says.

Saturday, Houston will address fellow alumni of Andover High, the Linthicum school they attended during its years of operation (1961-1990). Few have seen her since she graduated. She'll solicit funds and donations of toys and supplies.

For Houston, the hardest part will be finding the words to convey the drama of her journey, the gulf between the world she once knew and the one she lives in now.

"I don't know if the right words exist," she says. "I haven't found them yet."

To knit or not to knit
She had a successful life by any conventional Western standard - and what felt like a very happy one.

She grew up on Mansion Road not far from Overlook Park, attending Andover and graduating in 1968. A good student, she struck classmates as a generous person.

"Addie seemed to think of others more readily than most teenagers do," says Chrissy Gardner, a classmate.

As Houston matured, she also knew an opportunity when she saw one. After studying at the Johns Hopkins University, she learned of a national trend called "deinstitutionalization" - a movement among U.S. governors to close down state-run facilities for the disabled. She formed a management firm to help smooth the closures, built it into a thriving business, and sold it in 2001. She could have retired at 51.

A quiet Type-A sort, she found the thought unnerving. "Was I supposed to take up knitting?" she says. She started looking around for something to do.

One day at the dentist's office, while flipping through a People magazine, Houston spotted a photo of Angelina Jolie reading a book. The title: "Condemned to Repeat? The Paradox of Humanitarian Action."

She ordered a copy. Its theme fascinated her - the idea that Western altruists often fail because they view the cultures they wish to help through an arrogant lens.

"I don't know why," she says, "but I knew my life had changed."

Shortly afterward, she found herself on a plane next to a passenger wearing the uniform of the Salvation Army. The woman, she learned, had created the organization's International Social Justice Commission.

She scored an invitation to the headquarters in New York and soon found herself meeting movers and shakers in the world of international relief. Many found her background impressive. Job offers started pouring in.

"I could be a little picky," she says.

Screaming inside
Most who follow the news in Africa know of the horrors that have plagued Uganda, especially of the bloody rule of Idi Amin during the 1970s. Fewer may realize tragedy is still part of daily life.

Take the plight of female villagers. By custom, they're the ones who venture into the forests to find firewood.

When they do, they're often raped. Those who make it back tend the fires, the smoke from which causes respiratory illness.

Houston liked one nongovernmental organization, the International Lifeline Fund, which distributes clean-burning stoves to reduce the problem. She accepted a job in March of 2007.

Her mission: Spend two months in Uganda assessing the program, and start drumming up sponsors. Her stint was a shock.

First was the corruption. On reviewing the company books, she found the local director, a Ugandan, had been embezzling. She had to travel with armed guards as authorities combed Uganda looking for him.

Then there were the seismic problems. Houston, herself a mother, met kids by the hundreds, many orphaned by disease or violence. She saw the handiwork of a deranged faction, the Lord's Resistance Army, which kidnaps children, drugs them and turns them into killers in their own towns.

She met a 10-year-old who tried to escape. Guards cut off his limbs with a machete.

"Internally, I scream," she wrote a friend. Most nights, she bawled herself to sleep.

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