Eight-and-a-half years after first traveling to Ethiopia to adopt her daughter, WME Nashville agent Abby Wells Baas returned to Africa earlier this year, traveling to Kenya as part of a UNICEF delegation sent to observe and provide aid for the Kakuma Refugee Camp.
"It was breathtaking and heartbreaking," Baas said of the trip, which was sponsored by Endeavor Foundation — in 2017, WME's parent company formed a partnership with the aid organization. "Everywhere I looked, there were beautiful people but the circumstances they were in was heartbreaking."
The camp, first built for 70,000 people, now houses more than 180,000 refugees from South Sudan, Somalia and Ethiopia with families fleeing war and violence, famine and poverty.
"We got to see exactly what UNICEF does and learn about the different programs they have for the kids," Baas said. "Their whole focus is to help children stay healthy. We went out to an integrated health and nutrition outreach site near the camp. Most of the people that came were native and they come for treatments, often bringing their children. They weigh them, they check their height and then they check their arm circumference, which can tell you about how malnourished someone is."
UNICEF partners with Red Cross to provide food for refugees, including nutritional peanut paste, worming medicines and vaccines, as well as provide education on hygiene and how to sanitize water. She says her hosts also took her and her team to visit child-headed households, where 18- and 19-year-olds are set up in homes to overlook four to five siblings whose parents were killed.
Living conditions at the camp are very difficult — 100 people have to share a single water tap, and latrines are often split between four to five families.
"This is their reality, this is what they live through every day," she explains.
Baas also visited an all-girls school, where she met a teenage girl named Rachel who told the delegation she dreamed of leaving the camp to become a journalist and a comedian.
"We asked her 'what's the one thing you want us to know?' and she told us 'I want you to know that one week out of every month, one of us girls has to stay home and not go to school because we don't have the proper sanitary products,'" Baas recalls. "All of our hearts sank at that moment and we said we have to do something about this and help these girls who want an education. We're now working with UNICEF to find a fix for the problem."
For Baas, the trip hit home because she had traveled to the continent in 2009 to adopt her daughter Maggie. Now married with three kids total (she blended families with husband Mike and adopted his 14-year-old son, and the two have a 5-year-old son named Hudson), Baas said she felt a calling at an early age to adopt a child and after much prayer and reflection, decided to adopt a child from Ethiopia.
"I was single at the time and was ready to be a mom," said Baas, who spent 14 months going through screenings and background checks before traveling to Ethiopia to meet the six-and-a-half-month-old girl who she would adopt.
"It was very startling to me to see the level of poverty that exists," she says, "but it was all inspiring because the people were so beautiful and so friendly and happy."
Baas said while she and her daughter don't have the same "color skin, or type of hair or background," the two are "so similar in our personalities and the things we do, especially our mannerisms," Baas recalls.
"When she was 2, she told me, 'Mom, I want to be pink like you,'" Baas remembers. "And I told her 'God made you the most beautiful color brown and I would totally be brown like you if I could have that color skin because you are gorgeous."
When her daughter wasn't satisfied with her answer, Baas said she turned Maggie's hand over and then turned her own hand over and noted "we're the same color on our palms. That was always enough for her."
"I did 23andMe genetic testing with her hoping to find out anything we could about her birth parents," Baas recalls. "Hers came back that she's more than 90 percent sub-Saharan African and .01 percent Northern European. And mine is 99.9 percent North European and .01 African, so I told her, I said maybe we are related in some way and now we joke about that we have a very distant relative that we share."