HONOREE Thérèse Ilunga


Founder, BUMI
Democratic Republic of the Congo

Home to the world’s second largest tropical rainforest, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is ¼ the size of the United States and offers abundant opportunities for development with its wealth of fertile soil, hydroelectric power and mineral resources. But ongoing instability as a result of warfare, government corruption and economic crises have led to mass poverty, widespread conflict and the death of more than six million people. The average daily income in DRC is less than $1 USD. Nearly 30 percent of children under the age of five are malnourished. Approximately 10,000 children are living on the streets in Lubumbashi. And, child mortality rates here are some of the highest on earth.

Thérèse Ilunga was born in Kabozia, a remote village in DRC. She was one of 12 children and the eldest of eight girls in her family. Her parents insisted they attend school, so Thérèse walked more than seven miles a day to class. She returned home in the evenings, and while her mother was working in the field, she helped her grandmother with food preparation and cleaning—a job as “second mother” that would become her training to be a mother to thousands of orphaned children.

At the age of 19, Thérèse became a teacher in her local community, and she began traveling through Africa as a missionary with her future husband Lucien when she was 21. At the age of 28, she completed her nursing studies in Belgium and had an inherent desire to return to DRC to open a healthcare center, even as many of her schoolmates choose to stay in Europe. Nothing could stop her from returning to her home country, and in 1985, Thérèse and Lucien returned to DRC.

During their first year, Thérèse drove a red Toyota pickup truck with her three children in the back seat from village to village that served as a mobile medical clinic. Their car was also their home. Over the next three years, she assisted in childbirth, cared for the sick and buried the dead. Amidst the chaos and sadness, she officially founded BUMI in 1988—which means “life” in Luba language from the Katanga region—with the hope of providing a better life for the next generation.

BUMI is a humanitarian organization centered on the protection and education of vulnerable children in the city of Lubumbashi. The organization’s main goal is to restore dignity to children’s lives and to provide access to the same opportunities Thérèse and her siblings had that allowed them to lead productive lives as adults.

There is no discrimination or distinction toward children who are rescued. BUMI takes in newborns, street children with HIV, children with disabilities, teenage moms, children who have escaped abusive homes, orphans and many more. Each child is provided with adaptive care tailored to their needs so they can become accomplished citizens that will carry a message of future peace and hope. Whenever possible, and only when it is deemed safe and appropriate after thorough assessment, children are reunited with their families if they have living parents or guardians.

BUMI’s campus is an enclosed, protected site that spans more than 21 acres. Their Children’s Village is home to approximately 150 children ages 0-18 who are provided with family stability and a loving environment where an educator plays the role of “mum.” Their on-site school offers preschool, primary and secondary education courses for children living in the Village as well as several hundred children in the surrounding village. Monthly fees to attend school range from $5 to $8 USD, but children are never turned away if they are unable to pay. Preschool and the first two years of primary school are always free of charge. Thérèse believes that a proper education is the main component to ending the cycle of poverty.

The organization’s Health Center provides basic healthcare for children living in the Village and has the capacity to serve nearly 18,000 underprivileged families living in the surrounding communities. Facilities include a consultation room, pharmacy, two in-patient wards and a labor-and-delivery room. BUMI doctors specialize in pediatrics, vaccinations, well-baby checks and maternity services.

Adjacent to the Children’s Village is the BUMI farm, a project originally created to provide agricultural training for young adults to better prepare them for jobs as adults. The farm includes lemon, orange and papaya trees, dozens of vegetables like cabbage, kale and spinach, and an enclosure for pigs, sheep, goats, and chickens. They breed animals on site and sell them to restaurants and hotels in Lubumbashi as an income-generating project for the home and utilize the fresh produce as a sustainable method of feeding children in the home and at school.

Turning a child away in a country where there is no social support could mean a death sentence for them. Since its creation, BUMI has cared for more than 1,500 children—many of whom have become responsible adults, while others have been successfully reunited with their families. No child is ever turned away from BUMI, and as soon as they walk through the village doors, they are no longer orphans or vulnerable—just children.

We are proud and honored to welcome Thérèse to our family of Honorees as our 2019 World of Children Humanitarian Award recipient.

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