In a country with widespread poverty, Mark Miller saw the strength of the human spirit.
The CEO of the YMCA of Northern B.C. made a visit to Ethiopia last month as part of the British Columbia YMCA's partnership with the northern African country.
"The children, whatever their situation is, they tend to be happy with what they have," Miller said. "Our children in Canada are really, really fortunate to have all that they have."
With a population of close to 94 million people, Ethiopia is considered one of the poorest countries in the world. The gross domestic product per capita is just $1,200, compared to $41,500 in Canada.
"We know we're fortunate to be born in Canada, but it's magnified when you see it," he said.
The YMCA operates sites across Ethiopia and Miller visited a handful of locations in the capital of Addis Ababa. Although the facilities pale in comparison to what's offered in Canada, Miller said the mission of the YMCA in the two countries remains the same.
"They're still working to meet the needs of their community," he said. "Their needs are much different than ours in some ways, although the basics is trying to improve the lives of children and families."
Like the YMCA in North America, there's a focus on youth in Ethiopia with programs like essential care for orphans and recreation. They also offer sessions on reproductive health, HIV/AIDS and job mentorship.
"The buildings themselves are really a gathering place for children and families that want to socialize, connect and be involved in recreation programs," Miller said, adding that he was impressed by the passion of the staff members he met.
The YMCAs in B.C. have been connected with their Ethiopian counterparts for about a decade. They provide about $50,000 a year in funding along with equipment donations and other support.
The Ethiopian YMCAs also receive financial aid and other assistance from Germany and the United States.
Each year B.C. sends representatives over on a trip to see how things are progressing and this year Miller was selected along with Denis Gagnon from Vancouver.
Since their initial involvement about 10 years ago, the British Columbia group has seen a lot of changes with their Ethiopian counterparts.
"At one point all of the assets had been seized by the government, so we were really building it from the ground up," he said. "To date they haven't received their buildings and property back, but they're really starting to rebuild."
In the interim the YMCA is leasing various facilities to run its programs.
Miller said his message during the trip focused around building a philanthropic culture within the organization in Ethiopia and helping them find ways to generate revenue to sustain their operations.
"We do work with them on creating a philanthropic culture within their organization first and then within their community," he said. "They're a very giving people, but the idea of long-term philanthropy is an area they know they need a lot of work on."
Most of the programs in Ethiopia are free - a necessity given the country's economic condition - but Miller said there is room for revenue growth.
"They're starting to work on that concept as well, that those who are able to pay contribute something," he said. "Then it's re-invested into their community."
Despite the widespread poverty, Miller said he left the country hopeful about its future.
"There's lots of building going on and lots of hope for the future," he said. "There's foreign investment going on."