In 1978, the University Covenant Church in Davis, Calif., sent Jim Thomas, then 24, to the Congo as a missionary-nutritionist to treat protein-deprived children affected by slash-and-burn farming.
At his send-off ceremony, Thomas met 20-year-old Gayle Duddles, who had been born in the Congo to missionary parents. She fled at age 2 as the Congolese started their fight for independence from Belgium.
Thirty years later, the couple lead Africa Rising, a nonprofit agency that arranges short-term service-learning trips to East Africa, collects and distributes charitable donations and nurtures international support for organizations working to improve Africans' lives.
"We're a network catalyst, and building connections that take on a life of their own is our principal goal," said Jim Thomas, who is Africa Rising's president and an epidemiologist studying sexually transmitted diseases at the UNC School of Public Health. "When we help establish a new relationship, the exchanges often occur directly between the two organizations, not necessarily through Africa Rising."
The group supports several distinct development agencies that focus on enhancing Africa's health, housing, education, environment, government and economy. In the past three years, the organization has sent more than $100,000 to support grass-roots efforts in East Africa.
The main beneficiary is Beacon of Hope, which helps HIV-infected women earn a living weaving rugs that are sold in the United States. Africa Rising, formerly Carolina Hope, has sold about $40,000 worth of rugs to benefit Beacon of Hope.
"We identify organizations that people can believe in," Jim Thomas said. "It's not just a way to funnel money to needy people."
Africa Rising was born from the long-distance relationship between the Thomases' Chapel Hill Bible Church and Nairobi Chapel, a large evangelical congregation in Kenya. Jane Wathome, a wealthy member of Nairobi Chapel, wanted to train HIV patients in the city's Kware slum to care for each other.
To support Wathome's Beacon of Hope, members of the Bible Church started Hope-Fest, a benefit concert that has been the public face of Africa Rising. The fifth-annual HopeFest is tentatively scheduled for Sept. 27 at Cary's Koka Booth Amphitheater, with the Indigo Girls likely to reprise their 2006 role as the headliner. With help from past sponsor Lenovo, HopeFest has raised more $50,000 for Beacon of Hope since 2006.
Since 2002, Jim Thomas has led more than 60 Bible Church members on one- to two-week trips to Nairobi -- twice with Gayle and their two sons, Ian and Jordan. They aim to help Africans carry out their own solutions to problems of poverty, disease and lack of infrastructure.
"It's really easy for us who want to fix things to just give up in despair because the needs are so great," said Gayle Thomas, a physician who has served low-income patients at the Carrboro Community Health Center for most of the past 20 years. "Africans know how intransigent those problems are. ... When they see an African addressing the need, then they're empowered to think they can do it themselves."
Borrowing metaphors from Ghanaian economist George Ayittey, Jim Thomas aims to feed the African "cheetahs" who race forward, seeking solutions for their communities, not the government "vampires" who seize international aid money for themselves or the "hippos" who wait for someone else to solve their problems.
So, for example, Africa Rising helped to connect Greensboro's Center for Creative Leadership with Kwani, an organization that aims to nurture African writers who can portray their continent from an insider's perspective. The center wanted to expand the reach of its leadership training materials into East Africa but needed to cut the consumer price by about 80 percent.
"There's a hunger," said Steadman Harrison, a senior innovation associate with the center. "You have to find a price point that meets their pocketbook."
The center needed publishing partners who could translate their intellectual property into new languages and cultures at a low cost and without abusing the organization's copyrights.
"We don't have people on the ground in places like Nairobi, Kenya," Harrison said. "We have to work with an organization we believe we can trust. ... Africa Rising was a good vetting organization."
Africa Rising also supports the Africa Economic Foundation, a community development agency founded by villagers whose land was arid until they de-silted their reservoir. Concentrating the water there allowed them to farm fish, irrigate the surrounding soil and grow enough vegetables to feed themselves and sell at market. That caused a "domino effect": The farmers purchased equipment to dig wells and fish ponds for other villages and generate income.
"They're a group of Kenyans who are making changes in the community on their own," Jim Thomas said.
"We see a lot of great potential for us working together," said Philip Mwalali, the AEF founder and native Kenyan who now lives in Durham. "We should be able to reach more people that way and even expand to other countries."
Africa Rising's vice president, Jana Piepenbring, who will lead a dozen Bible Church members to Nairobi next week, said the Thomases have taught her to listen for cultural differences, rather than impose her own solutions on those she is trying to help. Her team will assist with rug-weaving, visit shut-ins and teach the Bible to children. In visiting Africa each of the past seven years, Piepen bring has done many things, including helping patients in health clinics and mowing grass.
"The culture over there isn't so much excited about us coming over and doing things for them but walking alongside them," she said. "Whatever they need us to do is what we go and do."
That's the impulse that led Jim Thomas to Zaire, now called the Congo, in the first place. Before AIDS was in the news, mass starvation was generating headlines out of Africa in the 1970s. Thomas applied to work as a nutritionist where he thought he was needed most. The U.S. Agency for International Development sent him to the Paul Carlson Medical Program, a hospital named for one of Gayle Thomas' heroes, a missionary doctor killed in the revolution that had driven her family out of the Ubangi region of northern Zaire.
After two years, Jim Thomas returned to California, where his wife said he "courted my parents" with slide shows and stories from Zaire and his homeward voyage through Central Asia. Gayle Thomas had recently broken up with a college boyfriend.
"I had kind of decided I wasn't going to get married -- sworn off of men," she said. "That lasted two months."
Jim Thomas chose UCLA over Berkeley for his public-health studies.
"He says that the fact that I was going to UCLA had nothing to do with him choosing UCLA," Gayle Thomas said.
In the fall of their first year in separate graduate programs at UCLA, they were engaged, and they married nine months later, in August 1982.
"If I was really called to be a missionary doctor in Africa, then this was the guy who would take me there," Gayle Thomas said.