Late for a job interview, stressed out and starting to panic, Mindi Mebane asked the building concierge for directions in the lobby of the marble and granite office building at 101 Constitution Ave., its hallways a bustle of lobbyists and power brokers. He didn’t just point the way. He led her to her destination and introduced her to her future boss, chatting warmly the whole time.
Just about everyone at 101 Constitution has a story like that about Jean Kabre. It’s not just the ways that he helps them, smoothing over security for crucial meetings with Cabinet members, ensuring the details are perfect for a reception. It’s more the way he has helped unite the hundreds of people who work there, turning what could be a cold, hectic place into something friendlier, more like a neighborhood.
So when the tenants found out that their concierge was not only supporting four children and his mother at home in Woodbridge but also an enormous family living in poverty in Burkina Faso, they were at first astonished. Then they wanted to help.That’s how 101 Constitution, the commercial building closest to the U.S. Capitol, came together to help Kabre’s small African village. “I knew it was on his heart,” said Dirk Kempthorne, a former secretary of the interior, senator and two-term governor of Idaho, and now the head of the American Council of Life Insurers. So Kempthorne offered the council’s luxurious space and veranda atop 101 Constitution for a fundraiser for Kabre’s village this fall. He hopes to make the fundraiser an annual event.
It started several years ago with small individual efforts such as writing a check to buy a goat. Then employees banded together to raise enough money to build a well to provide safe drinking water for the village. Now it includes such ambitious goals as food, education, housing, pursuing land rights and a business plan to make the village of Tintilou self-sufficient. It’s all still hard for Kabre to believe. There’s no tax write-off for helping Tintilou. But then again, Kabre’s friends say, there’s no overhead. Everything at a recent fundraiser was donated, down to the tiniest hors d’oeuvre from Charlie Palmer Steak. In an earlier fundraising appeal, donors saw video and photos of the hand-dug well that was there, full of frogs. An American consultant was asked to visit the village. And a worker at 101 Constitution with expertise in water hired an engineer from Ouagadougou, the capital city, to go to Tintilou, assess the problem and build a solution.
And then the tenants of 101 Constitution heard the results of their gift immediately and directly from Kabre: how the well ensured that villagers weren’t getting sick anymore from dirty water, how the children no longer had to walk for miles to find water when their hand-dug well dried up, how people from all over visited the well, day and night. Some were touched by Kabre’s own generosity; he had been raising more than $10,000 a year for leukemia research for years before anyone knew that he and his immediate family were in need. He didn’t ask for help, even as he worried about water bills at his home in Woodbridge or mud huts collapsing in Tintilou. Some were inspired by his hard work to create a better life, something he dismisses as almost universal. There are millions of people like him here in the United States, he says. Or in Burkina Faso, “talk to anyone else. This is our life. This is our life.”
Kabre laughed, a booming laugh that cascaded into giggles and head-shaking, when he tried to imagine how his family in Tintilou would react to 101 Constitution. They could not imagine such a place, he said. It’s all business suits and expense accounts, with sweeping views of the Washington Monument. Tintilou is poor: No electricity, no running water, not enough food. “They go through so much hard times and struggles but yet, they’re joyful and happy,” Kabre said. “Everyone knows everyone; everyone takes care of everyone.”
Kabre’s family is huge. His father had seven wives, which is common in the region. Kabre, who’s 54, is the oldest of 29 children. His youngest brother is 10. When his father died, the responsibility of supporting the family fell to him. As a child, Kabre slept on a mat in a small, round mud hut with his mother and four other children. He remembers his mother looking at the sky, praying for one more rain. Without it, they would go to bed with a glass of water instead of a plate of millet or sorghum. Family members dug for water, often chasing away creatures before drinking it. They were sick a lot.
At 13, with his first pair of shoes (flip-flops) and a ticket that his mother purchased, he boarded a train for the Ivory Coast. In Abidjan, where he had been sleeping under the steps of a building, a young woman offered him a job with her father. He became a butler in their home, and after years there, considers them a second family. So much so that, when he was able to get a visa to work in the United States, the daughters, who had moved to Washington, offered him a room so that he had time to get on his feet.
He started as a night cleaner in a hotel, learning English (his fourth language) with flashcards. After moving up the ranks, job by job, to hotel concierge, a regular guest asked if Kabre wanted to work for him at a new building near the Capitol. Instead of working two jobs and rushing home to try to see his children before they fell asleep, he could have one job with a good salary. Now he is the concierge and events coordinator. “I can’t explain the blessings that come to me from 101 Constitution,” he said recently, widening his eyes. “Sometimes I say, ‘Who am I? What did I do to deserve all this?’ ”
Kabre laughed when someone suggested drilling a well: It sounded absurd, impossible. He has only been back to Tintilou a few times. But in December, he was able to see the well built in 2008. He saw one brother using the water to grow cabbage and tomatoes and onions, even some extra crops that he could sell. He saw people using the water to make mud to build homes. And he saw how bad the drought had become there, how fruit trees had died and crops had failed, how hungry his family was.
“I get mad when people complain,” he said recently. “Here, if you look around you can only count your blessings. There is nothing to complain about.” A small group of colleagues helped him set goals after he visited in December and saw the impact of drought on Tintilou. The colleagues keep track of donations and give Kabre the money when they have plans in place. He wires the money to a brother there. This fall, the fundraiser at the building raised almost $14,000, which bought millet and rice, and paid tuition for the children. The employees hope to start building tiny concrete houses to replace the mud huts, construct one bathroom at the market and buy a grain grinder that would allow Kabre’s family to earn money and become self-reliant. Lawyers have offered to help with land-rights issues and the complicated process of forming a nonprofit group, and other colleagues have been talking with established nonprofit organizations working in Africa, to see whether any would be willing to partner with them.
“What is happening is just amazing, just incredible,” Kabre said. “I sometimes think: If this building wasn’t here, God’s mercy and grace. If 101 wasn’t there – not just to me. All those people. I turn and look at all these people going back and forth, back and forth, making a living. People come, they have jobs. They make new friends. A lot of friends!” He started laughing again, rubbing tears from his eyes.
This article was written by Susan Svrluga and it was published in the Washington Post on Nov. 26th 2012. Julie Tate contributed to this report.