“As I sit typing this post, I can hear military helicopters circling above,” wrote Carol Erickson, founder and Executive Director of Imara International, from a chaotic area of Kenya.

Hundreds of Minnesotans know this woman and are praying for her and her goal. She is giving girls a second chance at a life they only dreamed of for themselves and their kids. There are many different definitions of a hero. A lot of kids think heroes are people who run, fly, or shoot lasers out of their eyes, but there are also heroes like Carol. A woman working in an area surrounded by conflict. She is a real hero.

Carol grew up in Washington state and loved to read and spend time with friends. As a child, she wanted to be a teacher. When she was 10, she saw a video that showed babies dying in Romania because there was no one to hold them. Her first thought was to ask her mom to send her there. As she grew older, she went on several mission trips including working with children in migrant camps in northern Washington and trips to Mexico and Korea. That is how she gained her love for traveling.

In 2003, Carol moved to Minnesota and, in 2006, began attending Messiah Church in Plymouth. Soon after, she became director of children’s ministry. Before going to Africa, she attended a National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C. There, Bono from U2 spoke about the many needs and challenges people face in Africa. She told her friends that she would never go to Africa because of bugs and diseases, but five months later, she was in Kenya.

After six years of traveling to Kenya, she was deeply troubled that no one was helping the dozens of teenage girls who were pregnant or had young children. She wanted to make an organization to help these girls but she knew she would need strength to overcome the many obstacles she would face. Imara is the Swahili word for strength and the idea for Imara International was born.

By 2018, the first Imara house was too small for the number of girls it was helping. “The new location has more space so everyone can spread out a bit and there is room for us to expand our educational and skills programs,” Carol said in a blog post. Imara has dramatically grown from a small nonprofit to helping dozens of girls obtain an education and have a promising future while having a safe, healthy and meaningful life. Currently, Imara is helping 18 moms and 17 kids and has helped over 50 mothers and children in total. I was lucky enough to be one of her Sunday school students at Messiah, and my mom and I shared a vegetable garden and went on walks with her along the lakeside in Wayzata. She helped me become the person I am today and we still spend time together when she returns from Kenya.

Imara has changed countless lives for the better and will continue to for years to come. Carol told me that her goals for the future are to have no moms in Kenya under 14 years old and to provide a safe, loving, Christ-centered home for teen moms and their kids. She also hopes to have them be healthy members of the Kenyan society and the world. That is why Carol Erickson is an unsung hero of Minnesota.

Grant Witter is a resident of Plymouth, a student at Wayzata West Middle School and a winner of the student essay contest sponsored by U.S. Rep. Dean Phillips.

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