- The Washington Times - Friday, July 3, 2009

RICHMOND | Three years and four jobs after college graduation, Hunter Willis realized he wasn’t happy in the corporate environment.

He was looking for something more fulfilling when he went to a church service and heard a speaker talk about life in one of the poorest nations in the world.

Mr. Willis, 25, took a leap of faith - and a withdrawal from his savings account - to go to western Africa and help people he didn’t know existed.

“I had started this spiritual journey, and this really centered me,” Mr. Willis said. “It made me realize that money and the American dream aren’t necessarily what life is all about.”

Mr. Willis grew up in Falmouth, Va., and graduated from Stafford High School.

For a month, he lived in Burkina Faso, a nation with the lowest literacy rate in the world, a country where one of every nine infants dies. Natives try to grow enough food to survive, but lack clean water and proper sanitation, according to the World Food Program.

Mr. Willis spoke to the residents in French and taught English.

When he returned to Richmond, he devoted his attention to raising money for a school and medical program there.

He has raised about $10,000, toward a goal of $50,000. That money will help expand the Evangelical Language Center, which teaches basic skills to about 140 children who otherwise would receive no education. The money also will provide medical care for about 200 children a year.

Mr. Willis has no regrets about trading his $35,000 salary for a position that offers no pay. Nor does he mind his “minimal existence” of no social life, living with friends from church and eating a lot of rice and canned goods.

He jokes that he’s helping provide medical care for children in Africa, yet he can’t afford to go to a clinic.

“But this is what I was called to do,” he said. “This came into my life, and I had to respond to it.”

As he has asked for help for the country and shown a video, Web site and brochures he produced, Mr. Willis has been amazed by the compassion of others.

Listening to him talk about his quest to help people in a Third World country brought back memories to Rappahannock Rotary Club President Stephen Batsche, who spent a year in Venezuela as a volunteer.

The experience convinced Mr. Batsche, president of the Rappahannock United Way, that he wanted to work for a nonprofit.

“It’s wonderful to see young people come back with the kind of drive and experience that Hunter came back with,” Mr. Batsche said. “The club very much respected the sacrifices he made.”

Mr. Willis will continue his fundraising through July, then return to Africa with a team from his church, Commonwealth Chapel in Richmond. He’ll stay in Burkina Faso the rest of the year, then probably return to the United States and find a job.

He’s not likely to give up his connections to Jeremie Nikiema, the Burkina Faso native he met during the church service that changed his life.

Mr. Nikiema started the school in his home and saved for two years to come to the United States, to try to find people who would help his country.

As Mr. Willis has raised money for those needs, Mr. Nikiema has asked for more because there’s so much he wants to accomplish.

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