Valentino Achak Deng at the age of seven was separated from his family in Marial Bai, a small town in what is now Northwest South Sudan, and spent thirteen years in Ethiopian and Kenyan refugee camps before being granted asylum in the United States. His story, told in his co-written book with Dave Eggers What is the What, is one of story of the Lost Boys, groups of orphaned children who, in order to survive, trekked across the punishing landscape of their country during the Sudanese Civil War.
Out of the success of their book, Deng and Eggers started the Valentino Achak Deng (VAD) Foundation in order to provide educational opportunities for his native home in Marial Bia. In 2008, he began construction on a secondary school and opened it to the community in mid 2009. In the subsequent eight years, the foundation has branched out slowly to improve the lives of this village as well as other communities in South Sudan.
On May 8th, I photographed a fundraiser put on by the Shinemaker Foundation at Playa, a wonderful Mexican culinary experience in the heart of Mill Valley hosted by VAD board members, Tiffanie DeBartolo and Scott Schumaker. The Shinemaker Foundation “supports and elevates people and organizations that explore sustainable solutions and innovative ideas in education, human rights, social outreach, animal welfare and environmental preservation” and matched all funds raised that evening where nearly 70 people came out to dine on a 3-course prix fixe dinner plus margaritas as well as a short presentation on the conditions and successes the VAD Foundation operates under in Northern Bahr el Ghazal state.
Having worked in Sudan and travelled along a corridor that branches off from Wau, one toward Gogrial and Abyei and the other toward the regional trading center of Marial Bai, I feel particular affinity for the work of the Valentino Achak Deng Foundation and the near sisyphean task of building a strong foundation for future generations in a country that has been the center of decades of violence and mismanagement. The evening, in and of itself, was thoroughly enjoyable as I alternated between “hunting” for images while attendees mingled, laughed and then ate, and participating in socializing as well with the hosts and many of those who spent their Monday evening doing good by coming out for this fundraiser.
In the future, I look forward to being a part of more activities to help these two fantastic foundations expand their work and help those in need.