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It started by chance, or some might say divine intervention, when a children’s minister met a group of tall, dark young men in a Charlotte grocery store.
And it grew into a cross-cultural commitment that was much more than a summer mission trip or donations to foreign missionaries.
Carl and Nina Phillips are members of St. John’s Baptist Church on Hawthorne Lane. David Thon is one of the “Lost Boys” of the Sudan who settled in Charlotte in 2001. The Phillips were his mentors as he navigated a new life in the United States and gained an education.
“We had no idea what we were getting into when we responded to a call for mentors from Caroletta Partain, also from St. John’s, who was organizing a mentoring program for the young men,” said Nina.
After the chance meeting between Martha Kearse, children’s minister at St. John’s, and a group of the “Lost Boys,” the historic church in Elizabeth began supplementing the services provided by Catholic Social Services, the agency that brought the group to Charlotte.
Nina and Carl agreed to mentor Thon, teaching him about U.S. culture and helping him navigate the educational system.
Nina, Carl and other church members learned how an estimated 20,000 young boys were forced from their villages in the late 1980s during the civil war in Sudan. The boys, as young as 6, wandered through Sudan, Ethiopia and Kenya, where they lived in United Nations refugee camps for 12 years. During their treks, they faced hunger, thirst, and attacks by animals and soldiers. Many did not survive.
As they approached adulthood, the U.N. High Commission on Refugees arranged through the US State Department to send about 3,800 to the United States. About 45 came to Charlotte in early 2001.
“We were immediately impressed with the gracious spirit and friendly manner of the young men and were amazed at their fierce determination to get an education,” said Nina Phillips.
About 25 people from St. John’s and from other churches in Charlotte spent the next several years helping the young men. Thon worked 40 hours a week in a distribution warehouse while taking classes at Central Piedmont Community College. He moved on to Mars Hill College and was the first of the group to get his bachelor’s degree, in 2006. From there, he went on to the Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University in Atlanta, where he earned his master’s degree in May 2009.
To supplement loans and scholarships for all the young men pursuing a bachelor’s degree, a group of Charlotteans established the Sudanese Scholarship Fund, which has distributed more than $60,000 in scholarships. The fund continues to accept donations to assist other Charlotte Sudanese.
Thon is now in South Sudan on contract with the Carter Center, working on its Guinea Worm Eradication Program. He is on a six-month contract and will return in December. The contract is renewable.
He and Sudanese friends from across the country established the Sudanese Empowerment and Development Agency, which is working to establish an education center in South Sudan. Others in the Sudanese group in Charlotte have earned college degrees and have found ways to give back to the Sudan as well. Most have earned U.S. citizenship and most of those voted in the 2008 election. They follow both U.S. and Sudanese news closely, Nina Phillips said.
“We became aware in the beginning of our relationship with the young men that for most of them their goal was to get an education and return to South Sudan to help their people,” Nina Phillips said. So in late 2007, Thon and some of his Sudanese friends from as far away as Salt Lake City gathered at St. John’s, and that meeting led to the formation of SEDA, now a 501 c (3) non-profit organization.
Nina and Carl Phillips say the friendship has broadened their horizons. “And their spirit has been a real inspiration. We take so much for granted here”, Nina Phillips said, “And the relationship has grown into a treasured friendship.”
To contribute to the Sudanese Scholarship Fund, housed at St. or for more information, write or call:
Sudanese Scholarship Fund
c/o St. John's Baptist Church
300 Hawthorne Lane
Charlotte, NC 28204
Contact person: Carl Phillips
For more information: SEDA For Change.
PHOTO: From left: Carl Phillips, Nina Phillips, Abraham Maker behind Nina, David Thon in graduation cap, Mathew Manyang behind David, Manoi Athiian Manoi, James Chol, Jacob Garang, and Abraham Garang. Kneeling: David's cousin from Syracuse, N.Y., and Joseph Majak.
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