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Marketing executive ditches career to raise ophans in Swaziland

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By Gracie Bonds Staples - ATLANTA JOURNAL CONSTITUTION-09-May-2012

For years, Janine Maxwell of Milton lived life for herself -- choice vacations, four-star hotels and private schools for her kids

She was the founder and visionary idea person behind one of the largest and most successful marketing agencies in Canada. Her husband, Ian, took those ideas and breathed life into them, helping garner a client list that included Kraft, Kellogg's and Disney.

Together they were on top of the world and together they would’ve remained there had it not been for that dreadful day we all know as 9/11 and a chance encounter with an old friend.

Instead of continuing to use their talents to sell more Fruit Loops, Janine Maxwell decided, biblically speaking, to give up her life so that orphaned children in Swaziland, Africa, would gain one of their own.

Her efforts recently garnered her a Womenetics POW! Award, given annually to honor women who actively forge new paths while inspiring others. But, perhaps, more important that that, those effort have led Maxwell to take another dramatic step in her journey: uproot her family and finally move to the place where her heart abides.

Sitting at a pub table in her Milton home, one of just a few pieces still to be shipped to Africa, Janine Maxwell relived the moment that changed her life, set her and her family on a new course, made Atlanta take notice and earn a mention in President Bill Clinton’s book “Giving.”

“It was just one of those moments,” she says. “I started to question why am I here, what was I using my talents and abilities for? The answer was to get rich.” The searching began, she said, on September 11, 2001.

That day the 48-year-old mother of two happened to be at the Grand Hyatt above Grand Central Station attending a marketing conference, when she, an employee and clients from Kellogg’s were evacuated because of a bomb threat. As they fled the hotel, Maxwell naturally thought of her husband Ian, who was on a flight to Chicago, and her two children who were still in Canada. What would it all mean if she died?

Janine didn't die that day, but the thought was enough to send her into a deep depression. The once peaceful marketing executive was now living her life in fear. In the spring of 2003, she bumped into an old college friend she hadn’t seen in 20 years. What are you doing with your life, he asked her? What are you doing, she responded?

He was traveling the world filming street children and showing the video to raise money to help build orphanages. His next stop? Africa.

Four weeks later, Janine Maxwell was on a plane to Lusaka, Zambia, where she learned some 75,000 children lived on the street, including a 6-year-old orphan who shared his story with her from a garbage pit he called home. “I was just overwhelmed,” Maxwell remembered. “I thought, I’m going to fix this.”

Break

For most of her life, Maxwell had lived a privileged existence in Ontario, Canada, some 400 miles north of Toronto. She earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in marketing from Evangel University in Springfield, Mo. After working a few years in corporate Canada, she struck out on her own and at age 24 started her own marketing company.

So why couldn’t she raise enough money to build a home for this little boy and the hundreds of thousands of other children who so desperately needed one? “After being in Africa for two weeks, I was a mess,” Maxwell said. “I came home and couldn’t speak for weeks.”

But she knew she could no longer sit in a board room in her fancy clothes, designer heels and consider a drop in the market share of one of her consumer products a serious matter. The face of that little boy and the other children she saw crying and sick and hungry had been seared into her conscious. “Once you see them, you can’t pretend that you didn’t,” she said.

By July 2004, Janine and Ian decided to close their company. “Everybody thought we were crazy,” she said. “We just didn’t have the luxury of working for three years for someone else, making more money while children were living and dying on the street.”

And so in 2005, the couple, their then 8-year-old daughter and 10-year-ol headed to Swaziland, the epicenter of the HIV-AIDS pandemic, to volunteer.

In 2006, they moved to metro Atlanta from Toronto to gain support and build awareness of the needs there.

Janine chronicled her journey in “It’s Not Okay With Me” (Winepress Publishing), an autobiographical sketch of her riches to rags tale cited as recommended reading in President Bill Clinton’s book “Giving.” That same year, the couple started a non-profit called Heart for Africa to help the continent's orphanages.

Over the next four years the number of orphans in the tiny country of Swaziland nearly tripled from 70,000 to 200,000. The Maxwells knew they needed to do more and in 2009, with a $1 million donation from John Bardis, CEO of MedAssets, a medical information technology company based in Alpharetta, the couple purchased a 2,500-acre plot of land and called it Project Canaan.

On one side, they developed a farm to grow food, provide employment and vocational training. On the other, they built homes for the abandoned babies.

Bardis said the Maxwells have devoted their entire lives to service to the poor, the orphaned and the widowed. “The least we can do is assist them with resources to do this great work,” he said.

Early this year they opened El Roi, a home for abandoned babies. Five would arrive in the first month of operation.

This month, with exception of their son, who will be heading to college, they will finally follow their heart and move to Swaziland. “We expect the number of abandoned children to grow and we can’t raise them from here,” she said. “We don’t want to just feed and clothe them. This is about creating future leaders of a nation and a continent so the real work is there.”

Maxwell said her journey to Africa isn’t about handing out stuff to people who are not working. It is not about a redistribution of wealth but rather investing in the next generation of a country that can make a difference to a continent.

"We live in this global village,” she said. “What happens there impacts us here.”


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