Former attorney forms charity, produces a film in Africa

September 5, 2014

Former attorney forms charity, produces a film in Africa

Donna Valverde Helps Educate Girls in Kenya and Uganda

(By Amber Elliott, September 5, 2014)

Donna Valverde met Magdalene Fofana in 2005 when Valverde’s father was diagnosed with congestive heart failure. As his full-time caretaker, Fofana worked 12-hour shifts to ensure that he “didn’t experience pain, even for a second,” says Valverde. “I asked Magdalene to make my dad feel loved, and she took to that. I felt so indebted to her for making the (dying) process dignified for him.”

During that time, Valverde learned that Fofana had fled her native country of Sierra Leone with her husband and children because she had been “cut” – a form of female genital mutilation, or FGM – and didn’t want her daughters to face the same fate. Troubled, Valverde decided to take action.

“The cutting ritual is different in each culture, and it’s ethnic, not religious,” explains Valverde, 57. “The act itself isn’t barbaric, but if a girl isn’t cut she’s considered unsuitable for marriage and ostracized. A circumciser will come to the community, and there’s a lot of talk about who the girls will marry; afterward, they’re often traded for livestock.”

In 2007 Valverde established a charity to shed light on FGM and to support young African girls through education and mentoring programs. On Sept. 18, she will debut her film “Healing Magdalene” in Houston to spread further awareness about the issue.

This wasn’t always Valverde’s path in life. Born in Pasadena, she moved often throughout her childhood, living in various places from Saudi Arabia to Tennessee. She returned to Texas for college, attending Southwest Texas State University (now Texas State) in San Marcos, followed in the early ’80s by South Texas College of Law in Houston, where she met her husband (they have since divorced).

“That was a tough time for a woman to be in law school,” says Valverde. “There weren’t many females, and nearly every judge was a man. That experience has significantly impacted my whole life.”

Valverde practiced law until 14 years ago. She quit when her daughter turned 5. “I looked in the phone book one day and realized that there are so many attorneys in Houston, but my little girl only has one mother,” she says.

Several years later, Valverde met Magdalene and started the Valvisions Foundation. The charitable endeavor has three key initiatives: the Helen F. Valverde Girls Scholarship Program, the Girls’ Choice Club and the MC Project.

The scholarship program is named after Valverde’s late mother. The woman Valverde had hired to tend to her mom once she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, Lillane Barenzi, is from Uganda and currently works as Valvisions’ executive manager in Africa. There are 10 scholarship recipients in Uganda and 11 in Kenya; they all attend boarding school and are able to visit home approximately three times per year.

Donna (right) standing a Somali woman named Kathleen in Kenya near Nairobi. Kathleen had gotten severely ill after being cut and nearly died.

Donna (right) standing a Somali woman named Kathleen in Kenya near Nairobi. Kathleen had gotten severely ill after being cut and nearly died.

 “We have a holiday house for the girls who don’t feel comfortable returning to their communities,” Valverde says. “We recently took a group to the mall where most of them were able to see an elevator for the very first time.”

The Girls’ Choice Club meets bi-monthly at high schools in Uganda’s Kampala area to examine the socio-psychological, emotional and spiritual issues that affect teenage girls. Occasionally, they’ll read and discuss books.

“We talk to girls about how beautiful it is to be female,” says Valverde. “That whole club is designed to create a ceremony for them to become young women, without being cut.”

During her inaugural trip to Africa in 2008, Valverde spent time in Cameroon for research, speaking with several missionaries and fellow nonprofits. She discovered that many of the young females are forced to discontinue their education once they begin menstruating because they’re unable to afford sanitary products. The MC Project distributes menstrual cups to students and women suffering from obstetric fistula, a medically related complication of FGM.

After that initial life-altering trip, Valverde began to raise funds for her foundation stateside and realized that although her donor base had heard about FGM, they didn’t know the whole story. To spread awareness, she decided to make a film.

In 2008 Valverde and her seven-person film crew set off for western Africa. As the FGM conditions are much worse on the continent’s eastern side, she and a team of four traveled to Kenya and Uganda in 2012 to shoot more footage.

The final product, a 94-minute film titled “Healing Magdalene,” already has received awards from Indie Fest, the White Sands International Film Festival, the Sunset Film Festival Los Angeles and the Hoboken Film Festival.

On Sept. 18, “Healing Magdalene” premieres in Houston at the River Oaks Theatre.

“Houston is home for me and where the story started,” Valverde says.

She currently is working on a second film project chronicling the day-to-day effects of Alzheimer’s.

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