Sadness consumed Deo Mbituyimana in 2007 when he traveled to his native country, Burundi, for the first time in 15 years.
Mbituyimana saw that the impoverished African nation was in shambles due to a long and bloody civil war stemming from ethnic divisions between Hutu and Tutsi tribes. In the capital, Bujumbura, he observed schools and hospitals that were destroyed, and many homeless children wandering the streets. He went to rural areas that had also been devastated by the fighting.
The scene struck such an emotional chord with Mbituyimana that he vowed to help Burundian children living in dire conditions.
"This was my promise to those kids I met on the street," Mbituyimana said. "I visited those schools and promised them that I am going to be their voice where I am because we live in wealthy countries in North America. There are so many people who have a lot of means and are willing to help those who are in need, especially in Africa. But [Burundians] need someone to bring [that assistance] to them."
This was the beginning of an organization, Mbituyimana called Deo's Promise.
"Deo means God in Latin," he said. God "promises us that he will give us whatever we need as long as we ask for what we need from him."
Keeping his vow
Following his trip, Mbituyimana returned to Canada, where he has lived for 13 years under dual Canadian-Burundian citizenship, and told fellow members of his rotary club in the province of Alberta about Deo's Promise.
Through the club, he raised $50,000, which included a $25,000 grant from Alberta's government, and put it toward his first project: rebuilding the water supply system at Lycee de Muramvya High School, his alma mater, in the Burundian province of Muramvya. More than 600 students, who were enrolled at the school, were beset with poor hygienic conditions.
Mbituyimana, who has since been relying on individual contributions, has put much of his funding toward helping orphans. He found foster homes for about 100 Burundian children and raised enough money to support the families caring for them.
Deo's Promise also placed about 100 kids living in refugee camps in Burundi with families in neighboring Rwanda. Plus, some Burundian students have been able to attend college because of financing generated by the organization.
Currently, Mbituyimana is trying to raise $20,000 for a 12-year-old Burundian girl named Michaella Ndayisenga, who suffers from severe heart defects and is in need of a second round of surgery.
Half of that amount will go toward the medical fees, and the other half will be used for travel expenses to India, where the surgery will be performed.
Children dying young
Mbituyimana, 48, is proud of his achievements. But he said he believes the stakes are too high to stop now. Most of the children living on the streets in Burundi will die at less than 20 years old because they lack the proper means for survival, he said, adding that when he looks in their eyes, he sees kids who are "very desperate, very hungry and very sad."
"The children are in a really bad situation in terms of hygiene," said Mbituyimana, who lives in Calgary, Canada and works for the Calgary Catholic School Board.
"They have no proper clothing and no proper food. They can spend the whole day on the street without eating. They don't have basic sufficient needs. They get sick easily and end up dying from diseases that could be prevented such as malaria. They have no proper means of living, and their parents are not there to take care of them. Even when they are, they do not have money to support their children.
"We always hope that if we open our doors then generous people will help and donate to those who are helpless," he said.