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Below the second-floor window of a simple structure in Gulele, a poor neighborhood along Addis Ababa’s hilly western boundary, energetic children shout Sister Myriam McLaughlin’s name. Within seconds, the jovial nun pops her head out the window, returns their calls, blows kisses, waves goodbye and pulls her head back inside, laughing.

Established in 1995 by the Good Shepherd Sisters, the facility, which contains offices and classrooms, houses the Community Development Project Gulele, a Catholic initiative to empower women and educate children. The organization offers a host of courses, including a community leadership development program, literacy classes, a microcredit and savings program and job-training workshops. The initiative also provides child care for participating women. For the neighborhood’s underprivileged children, tutoring is available as well as lessons in developing solid study habits.

Building the program from scratch, in one of Ethiopia’s poorest neighborhoods, was by no means easy recalls Sister Myriam.

“I hated coming out here. It was so dark, drab and depressing,” she said about the center’s early days. “Nothing. Not even a cup of water. Nothing. Zero. Zero. Zero. The place was swarming with children and responsibilities, a maze the women didn’t know how to get out of. It was ‘give me, give me, give me’ — water, toilet, school fees, clothes,” she continued. “We thought if we could get them to the level of poverty, we’d have done our job.”

In a conference room down the hall, about 30 women gather for a meeting of Delta, or Development Education and Leadership Teams in Action. Seated in front of the group, three women performed sketches as part of a role-playing exercise demonstrating two different approaches to community development: aristocratic and democratic.

The sketch of the “aristocratic” approach drew laughter, as the “development worker” talked over the two “local beneficiaries,” whose efforts to express their needs fell on deaf ears. The sketch of the “democratic” approach, in which the “development worker” listened attentively to the “local beneficiaries,” taking notes and asking questions, elicited nods of approval.

One of the sisters’ most successful programs, Delta trains women in community organizing and civic leadership. Hundreds of women have benefited, learning how to be active agents of change in their communities. “People were sitting on their tails,” explained Sister Myriam in a pronounced Irish brogue.

“We told them, ‘You have major problems here, but nothing that can’t be solved. God is here. But God can’t do everything. He’s waiting for you to get off your backside and do something about it.’ ”

For their part, the sisters’ microcredit and savings program teaches business and money management skills and helps women obtain loans for income-generating projects and small businesses.

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