I never met Debra Dawson in person, but from our email exchanges I can tell you that she has endless reserves of passion and energy. I would ask her a one sentence question and she would respond with five or six paragraphs. Undoubtedly, it’s this energy and enthusiasm that has allowed her to be so successful in business and in philanthropy. Deb is the President of African Soul, American Heart, a nonprofit dedicated to sheltering and educating orphan girls in the Republic of South Sudan by caring for their basic needs, enabling their attendance in school and tutoring them, teaching practical life skills, and protecting them from forced marriage at puberty. Deb founded ASAH in 2007 with a Lost Boy of Sudan and made a documentary about his desire to help orphans in the village he escaped 20 years earlier. Now, she spends three months a year working with the staff and students at the ASAH School for Orphan Girls in Duk Payuel, Jonglei State, Republic of South Sudan. Additionally, Deb’s role as mother to biological, step, and internationally adopted children led her to write “When Love is not Enough,” a memoir about the way mothers and daughters forge relationships in the face of tremendous obstacles. Deb was kind enough to answer my Talking GOOD questions …
The 10 questions
IN JUST ONE SENTENCE, WHAT IS YOUR PURPOSE IN LIFE?
I’m here to empower orphaned girls.
WHAT IS SOMETHING YOU WANT TO ACCOMPLISH BEFORE YOU “EXPIRE?”
Each day, I wake and step onto the path. The soles of my shoes are worn from trekking the well-trod track, though I skin my knees and bruise my shins on the rocky routes. Any expiration date is okay with me because there is no ultimate goal. Until then, I’ll keep doing the work and loving my family as best I can.
IF YOU COULD MEET WITH ANYONE (ALIVE), WHO WOULD IT BE AND WHAT WOULD YOU ASK THEM?
Some years from now when her kids are teens, I’d ask Angelina Jolie about her experience of mothering foreign orphaned kids. Has it been any easier for her than it’s been for me? I’m guessing not.
WHAT WOULD THE TITLE OF YOUR BOOK BE?
The working title of my manuscript, a memoir, is Someone Else’s Children, but I’ve been rolling another title around in my mind recently: When Love is not Enough. What do you think?
WHO WOULD PLAY YOU, IN A MOVIE ABOUT YOUR LIFE?
We’re back to Angelina. She’s overcome loss and heartache. She’s a bad girl turned good. She’s an adoptive and a bio mom with an awesome partner. And she works in Africa. In fact, she and Brad donated big bucks to help build the Lost Boys Clinic in the village where the ASAH School for Girls is located. Brad was exec producer of God Grew Tired of Us, a Sundance award-winning film about the Lost Boys featuring John Dau who built the clinic. John is a cousin of Joseph, the Lost Boy I began working with in 2007. You see how the world works?
WHAT IS A BELIEF THAT IS CORE TO YOUR BEING?
I don’t believe that the world will ever be free of suffering. Without suffering, we’d all be insufferable. That said, we each have a responsibility to open our eyes and really look. And then to act.
WHO ARE YOUR HEROES?
Foster parents, people who work with the disabled, the broken-hearted, the addicted, criminals. Women who find the courage to leave abusive relationships and start new lives for themselves and their children. People who stand up for the human rights of others. People who walk the talk.
IF YOU WEREN’T DOING THIS, WHAT WOULD YOU BE DOING?
TELL US SOMETHING SURPRISING ABOUT YOURSELF.
I was my first husband’s second wife, my second husband’s third wife, and my third husband’s fourth. In some crowds it make for spicy conversation; in others, it’s poison gas. (First two lines of my memoir–know any agents?)
WHAT QUESTION DO YOU WISH I HAD ASKED?
"Why did you adopt three foreign older girls over a twenty-year period when you already had children of your own? And why wasn’t that enough?"
I asked myself two questions because I can’t stop when I’m ahead, which answers the first question. Why that wasn’t enough is a question for the analyst’s couch where I’d explore my own longing for mother-love, my own nurturing having been truncated by my position as the oldest of three girls by age 3 1/2. Had this analysis come early enough, it would have resolved my need and reduced my desire to mother actual orphaned girls, and probably not have resulted in my current life which includes three months a year in an uncomfortable climate in a dangerous part of the world where I sleep in a tent or a tukul and eat mostly beans and rice–cabbage or kale being a special treat. And then what would have happened to all those girls who need a leg up?