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In fall 2004, Ryan Keith MPP 2010 was due to attend Harvard Divinity School to pursue graduate level theological studies. However, in July, the pastor of Keith’s local church asked him to take on a project thousands of miles away from Cambridge, MA. Instead of heading to the hallowed halls that fall, Keith turned down his chance at Harvard and traveled to Zimbabwe with a group of more than a dozen people from his Pennsylvania church to see how they could help with the AIDS crisis.
During his first few trips to Africa, Keith met a family suffering the consequences of AIDS in a brutal way. On a January day in 2005 he found himself sitting under a tree and comforting a dying woman, Mrs. Mpofu.
“As I held her frail hand, I saw her two children, Peterson and Prudence, watch their mother die,” said Keith “These kids had already lost their father to AIDS-related illnesses … what would happen with them? Who would advocate for them and make sure they didn’t slip through the cracks? Who would make sure their voices were not forgotten?”
A year later, Prudence also died, leaving Peterson alone in the world. Relatives debated over who should look after him while Peterson lived alone for 18 months. He was 8 years old.
In 2005, Keith, inspired by pastors in Zimbabwe and America, and moved by the reality of AIDS in Africa, founded the charity Forgotten Voices. Its mission is to work in the lives of children orphaned by AIDS. Thanks to a partnership between Forgotten Voices and a local church in Zimbabwe, the church was able to pay for Peterson’s school fees and AIDS medication and counseled his family until Peterson could move in with his grandparents.
“Peterson was born with HIV, as was his sister,” said Keith. “Without Forgotten Voices’ partnership, it is unlikely that he would have lived to see 9. Now he’s going to be 13 this year.”
Keith, the son of a Christian pastor, sees Forgotten Voices as more than charity work – it is a ministry.
“I believe our world is full of complicated situations that go beyond human understanding. The God I serve has not called me to solve all the world’s problems, but He has called me to be a servant, leader and reconciler,” said Keith. “My faith allows me to lead others and draw on hope that transcends cultures and generations.”
Today, Forgotten Voices works in both Zimbabwe and Zambia with more than 160 churches through 25 projects to meet the needs of around 5,000 children. The annual budget is less than $350,000.
Keith admits they cannot meet the needs of every child, but instead, fill in the gaps where local churches cannot help. Indeed, the relationship between Forgotten Voices and the Zimbabwean churches is essential to their approach to projects.
“Almost all of the people that receive assistance directly or indirectly from Forgotten Voices don’t know anything about us, but instead give all the credit to the local church serving them,” said Keith. “This helps limit dependency, creates more local ownership, and helps our donors see how much work is being done locally – that it’s not all about us in the USA, but instead about equipping local people.”
The rapid growth of Forgotten Voices left Keith feeling ill equipped to handle the responsibilities of an expanding charity. So, he applied once more to come to Harvard – this time as a Master in Public Policy student at the Harvard Kennedy School with a concentration on non-profit management.
“HKS is a unique place in that it brings people from all over the world to pursue a better way for public service,” says Keith.
“I came to learn how to grow our organization. HKS has wildly exceeded my hopes and dreams in that regard, but more importantly, I’m thankful to the HKS community for helping me grow as a man, husband, leader, and future father.”
As Keith and his wife await the birth of their first child in June, Keith continues to dedicate himself to a larger circle of children. “I’m so thankful for all those that invest in HKS and the community here that has invested in me, and, in turn, Forgotten Voices. On behalf of the hundreds of churches and thousands of kids we will serve in the years to come, I’m forever grateful.”
Ryan Keith, the founder of Forgotten Voices, draws on his Christian faith to lead the organization. Photo provided, Forgotten Voices.
“I believe our world is full of complicated situations that go beyond human understanding... My faith allows me to lead others and draw on hope that transcends cultures and generations.” - Ryan Keith
Ryan Keith holds Peterson by the hand as they walk to visit the graves of Peterson's mother and sister, who both died of AIDS. Photo provided, Forgotten Voices.