El Ndoye always knew about the street kids of Senegal.
Then one night, during a trip from Tucson to his African homeland, Ndoye's brother encouraged him to peer into a storage building. He came face-to-face with the children known as the Talibes.
"You open the door, and all you see is kids, laying one after the other, on cement," Ndoye said. "Some had blankets, many did not. They would lay next to each other for warmth.
"That did it," he said.
Ndoye, a branch bank manager in Oro Valley, has embarked on a mission to help the forgotten children – numbering near 100,000 — in the region of Mbour, Senegal, West Africa. He has incorporated the non-profit organization The Forgotten Children. He's collecting clothing, shoes, hygiene items, household goods, non-perishable food and more. He's assembling up to $6,000 to help ship those goods to Senegal by year's end.
"I would love to fill up a 20-foot container," he said. "That would be so awesome."
Ndoye is looking for grants, donations and help. A storage unit would be terrific. He'll drive to pick up gifts. He's going to lengths to bring real, lasting change for the children of his homeland.
"Our services will improve the lives of these children by helping them achieve goals of self-sufficiency," Ndoye writes in a flyer. "Our investment is small in comparison to the cost of ignoring these problems."
Ndoye wants to start "with getting them the basics." In his Tucson garage, once his own three children have done their homework and are off to bed, he's filling boxes with clothes, shoes, school supplies, hygiene products, computer parts and keyboards, and more. He wants to be in Senegal when the goods arrive, to make sure they are properly distributed.
"I don't want to send money right now," Ndoye said. "There's no way of guaranteeing it would help the kids."
There is a bigger vision, too. He wants to create a shelter, build classrooms, take those children in, teach them, take care of them. Their medical needs are "unbelievable," Ndoye said. "Kids get sick, and they don't even think of taking them to doctors. They're just laying there until they feel better."
Everyone in Senegal knows about the Talibes. Traditionally, families — often rural, often poor — contract with Marabouts, who are teachers, to raise their children and provide an education. In exchange, the families offer gifts, and the kids work in farming or other enterprises to support the Marabouts. A Marabout might have 20 up to 200 children in his charge.
"I don't have a problem with the idea behind it, teaching kids, educating them, taking care of them," Ndoye said. "Some have good intents, and are doing what they set out to do."
Increasingly, though, those kids are not being educated, and they're not working. Rather, they are sent out to raise money by begging.
Why? "Greed," Ndoye said. "A law prevents exploiting these kids, but the law is not being applied. It's greed, and lack of responsibility, lack of accountability. It's just unbelievable."
"People back home are used to it," Ndoye said. "They say 'oh, it's part of life.' To me, it's not. I believe in the culture, I believe in these kids. My problem is the exploitation. It's just not right."
Ndoye came to Tucson from Senegal in June 1995, speaking only French and his native Wolof language, intending to get an education. After language training at the University of Arizona, he studied at Pima Community College, then earned a degree in business administration with an emphasis in operations management at UA. Ndoye trained in management with Bank One, became a manager, then joined National Bank of Arizona in 2004. He is an assistant vice president and branch manager at the National Bank office on Oracle Road north of Ina.
Ndoye is grateful for the opportunities he's had in America, but his native land is never far from his thoughts. Nor are children.
"I'm not doing this just for Africa," Ndoye said. If children here are in need, he'll do what he can to help, and he could use the help of children here to aid the Forgotten Children. "It's not about religion, cultures, colors. This is about kids, children, that's it."
Ndoye is not doing this alone. His brothers, Mansour, Mohamed and Lamine, are helping in Senegal, along with Tucson friend Richard Noel and bank colleague Seema Jha, who are on the non-profit's board.
El is married to Adja Thiouf, with three "beautiful daughters," Fatima, Gia and Cece, ages 5, 7 and 11. Everyone is helping. "They love it," he said. Fatima asked "Daddy, can I be a board member?"
Ndoye formed The Forgotten Children "because of my kids. When I went and saw these kids, the conditions they are living in … it's how lucky we are to be here.
"Senegal, that's my home, that's where I started. If I can do anything to change that picture … it's home."
The Forgotten Children
El Ndoye, president
2175 W. Silver River Way, Tucson, 85745