President Jim Doti awarded Public Safety Officer Michael Belay Chapman University’s highest honor, the Presidential Medal, for his efforts in raising funds and collecting supplies to improve the lives of people in his hometown of Tembien, Ethiopia through his nonprofit organization Hands Across the Planet to Poor Youth (H.A.P.P.Y.).
The university first instituted the Presidential Medal 10 years ago. As president, Doti has individually selected each recipient and recognized individuals who have had a significant impact in business, philanthropy or the arts. The award is presented to individuals sparingly, with one given out about every two years.
“There was a long standing ovation at our holiday party after announcing that Michael would be a medal recipient. This speaks to the love and regard the community has for Michael and his achievement. I would love for his story to transcend Chapman so more people know about and are inspired by his work so that other people can help support his cause,” Doti said. “I think it’s an incredible testament to a person’s humanity that someone with a job that has a modest salary can do so much and have a significant impact on the lives of others.”
Chief Randy Burba of Public Safety said that he has been working with Belay for more than 10 years and has seen him make a difference not only with his organization in Ethiopia, but in the way he interacts with students and faculty on the university campus.
“I certainly think he’s deserving of the Presidential Medal and I think he embodies what Chapman is about: the four pillars, global citizens, etc.,” Burba said. “He’s the kind of person that Chapman would want to prop up as a representation of its values.”
Belay first knew he wanted to help Ethiopia after seeing the impoverished living conditions people continued to live under more than 25 years after he moved to the U.S.
“When I went home the first time, in 2000, the kids only asked for a pencil and pen – it made my heart fail just hearing that,” Belay said. “They don’t ask for money, they don’t ask for candy, they don’t ask for food, they don’t ask for anything. The kids would say ‘I want paper and pen because I want to write.’”
While Belay began helping people in Ethiopia more than 15 years ago, it was not until he founded his nonprofit organization in 2001, H.A.P.P.Y., that he was able to really contribute to the cause. Through H.A.P.P.Y., Belay has been able to help people affected by war, poverty, hunger, polluted water and a general lack of health support. The organization’s focus is on projects geared toward water and hygiene, orphan education and housing, as well as medical clinics and ambulances.
After a few years of trying to raise money for H.A.P.P.Y., Belay sold his family’s home and refinanced his car in order to build and furnish a small school with faculty, staff and 24-hour security in Tembien. The school has an open-door policy to welcome any child that needs an education and more than 1,000 students have graduated from the school since it opened in 2006. However, the classrooms are overcrowded and the building itself needs improvements. Belay’s current goal is to raise $1.2 million to build and furnish a school for more than 1,100 children with 35 students in each classroom.
Belay has also funded the drilling of two water wells, the delivery of supplies to local Ethiopian hospitals and the building of homes for poor families with money donated by numerous benefactors in addition to other fundraising methods.
If you would like to donate to H.A.P.P.Y. to fund the building of a school in Ethiopia, you can donate directly to the cause through the organization’s website. All donations are tax-deductible.