Michele Stumpe was always wild about
animals. Then the sanctuary workers
and their children captured her heart.
Dressed in bright fuchsia and royal blue outfits handmade for them for the ceremony, Michele Stumpe and her husband Kerry stood in front of Limbe Wildlife Centre’s new education center listening to the song the children and teenagers had prepared as thanks. Tears rolled down Michele’s cheeks as she looked at the smiling faces of 38 children, the offspring of Limbe’s animal sanctuary workers in Cameroon, Africa.
Despite her tenderness for animals and children, Michele doesn’t cry easily. But that evening she was overwhelmed to see three teenagers in particular: Michael, Hermine and Stephanie, who had been away at university. They had ridden a bus over bumpy, dusty terrain for four hours in the middle of the week to surprise the couple. To make it back in time for class the next day, Michele knew they would need to get up at 4 a.m. to take another four-hour bus ride in the oppressive tropical heat. The extraordinary effort they’d made to be there to express their gratitude for being the first beneficiaries of the Stumpes’ scholarship fund prompted Michele’s tears.
Before you came into my life, I had no intentions of completing my studies, said Stephanie (pictured here), reading from a letter she’d written the couple. Not because I had a phobia for schooling, but because I was always sent (home) as my parents were not able to afford my school fees. I am most grateful now because my story has changed. I can go to school freely… I will continue to do that and will never stop.
The moment represented an unlikely turn of events for someone whose life passion was mammals of the furry variety.
Working with primates
One fall day in 1982, Michele proudly guided her brother — my husband Kevin — and me through the Gladys Porter Zoo in the border town of Brownsville, Texas, where she’d become a volunteer when she was 12. Dressed in khaki pants and zookeeper’s shirt, the petite teen strode confidently from exhibit to exhibit, telling us all about the animals.
The youngest volunteer to go through the training program, Michele had received the second highest grade in the class, giving her the privilege of working in the zoo’s nursery where she tended to a baby jaguar, zebra, fennec foxes, tamarins, sloths and small antelopes called duikers. Her favorite charges, though, were the primates: chimps, monkeys, gibbons and especially the great apes.
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Hummmmm, bump. Hummmmm, bump.
Michele barely noticed the noise of late night vacuuming anymore. She glanced at the antique clock in her well-appointed office overlooking Peachtree Street — 11:23 p.m. In her trash were five empty Coke cans, a Lean Cuisine box from lunch and a Cheetos bag that had contained her dinner.
When you going home? You work too hard, said the woman cleaning Michele’s office.
Michele sighed. I’ll be here a little longer, she said.
You don’t become a law partner by the age of 29 by having a social life. Although she was fresh from a difficult divorce, Michele wasn’t complaining. She was a well-respected litigation lawyer with a new condo in the heart of Buckhead, a new car and a retirement plan.
Hummmm, bump. Hummmm, bump.
The vibration of the vacuum caused something to fall from Michele’s bookshelf: a framed photograph of her as a teen at the Brownsville zoo playing with a young gorilla named Kimba. Tears sprang to her eyes as she remembered the troubled gorilla who spent her days rocking aimlessly in a corner.
Michele recalled how she used to race through her chores in the zoo’s nursery so she could go sit with the 2-year-old gorilla, rejected by her mother at birth, as she rocked and rocked.
One hot and humid day, Kimba stopped rocking. Slowly and deliberately she gently placed her large hands on either side of Michele’s face, looked deep into her eyes and softly stroked the girl’s face. From that day on, the two often played together, tickling and tumbling around and exchanging hugs and kiss.
When her father’s job transferred the family to South Carolina, Michele was sad to leave Kimba behind. One month after she left, she learned Kimba had died.
That night in 1999, as she sat in her office reminiscing about her old friend, Michele wondered how she had gotten so far away from her passion for animals. Despite having accomplished more than she ever imagined she would, there was something missing, something big.
The next day she began searching for a way to put her legal skills to work and rekindle her passion. She learned about Gorilla Haven, a primate sanctuary that was in the planning stages in the North Georgia mountains for captive gorillas with temperaments ill-suited to zoos. She began providing pro bono legal services to the organization and was thrilled when one of the founders invited her to visit a wildlife sanctuary in Africa.
Trip to Africa
Four months later, Michele waved goodbye to her new boyfriend, Kerry Stumpe, as she boarded the packed flight to Douala, Cameroon.
Located just two degrees above the equator in Central Africa, Cameroon is one of the richest countries on the continent in terms of biodiversity with 900 bird species and 300 mammal species. Cameroon’s wildlife is rivaled only by its culturally diversity with more than 200 distinct linguistic groups. Michele could scarcely believe she was about to spend three-and-a-half weeks working with gorillas in Africa.
As she got off the plane, the hot humid air reminded her of Brownsville. On the drive to the wildlife center, she was filled with anticipation, but her heart sank at what she witnessed: streets pocked with potholes, a fleet of taxis honking their horns, open sewers and impoverished people selling dilapidated wares and emaciated cattle along the roadside.
Soon the thick, polluted city air gave way to banana plantations as she headed toward the Gulf of Guinea. Late that evening, as she listened to the waves crashing against the rocks outside of her room and a midnight thunderstorm roared in the distance, Michele had the strange sensation of feeling at home.
A week into the trip, Michele wrote a letter to the man who shared her passion for animals and would ultimately become her husband, extolling the joy of having made two friends. One was a young gorilla named Evindi.
“Nostalgia fills the air every morning as I am greeted by the familiar musky smell of gorilla,” she wrote. “Isn’t it amazing how a smell you haven’t experienced in over 20 years can be so immediately recognizable that it has the power to take you back to a time you’d almost forgotten?”
The other friend was a little boy named Michael.
“On the first day, I offered him a handful of Starbursts. He took one (yes, one) and you would have thought it was the most expensive chocolate truffle you could buy, the way he savored it,” she wrote. “Each day I tell him that he can have more than one (he likes lemon) and each day he politely says, ‘No, I’ll let you save them for the other children.’ There’s just something about this place!”
By the time she returned to Atlanta, Michele was dreaming up ways to help wildlife sanctuaries in Africa. She and Kerry decided to quit their jobs — he was an architect — and start their own law firm and consulting business from which some of the proceeds would be funneled toward wildlife sanctuaries. They opened their doors to Evindi Inc. in October 2000.
Two years later the couple married at Gorilla Haven.
Hard work, great need
Another two years would pass before Michele and Kerry could take a much delayed honeymoon. They decided to spend it volunteering at Limbe Wildlife Centre, a rehabilitation project in Cameroon specializing in primates orphaned by poachers.
Michele spent her time in the office putting her legal skills to work with the management staff while Kerry worked side-by-side with workers tending the animals. Late one particularly moist afternoon, Kerry was in the fields helping a worker named Bama cut down bamboo for the gorillas. He teased Bama that he must have gotten his red shirt mixed up in the wash because all of his socks were red.
Oh no, there was no mistake, said Bama. I have one pair of socks. My wife, she washes them every night.
At the end of their trip, Kerry gave Bama a 12-pack of new socks he’d bought at Target for the trip. He initially refused the gift, but when Kerry insisted, Bama could scarcely contain his joy. His gratitude made an impression on Michele.
Two years later, Jonathan Kang, Limbe’s head of staff, was invited to speak at a primate conference in South Carolina. It was his first time away from the African continent, and the Stumpes invited him to spend a week in Atlanta. Every day he was in town they planned a new activity so he could see the city’s sights. But Jonathan insisted on spending some of his time helping Kerry with projects at the Stumpes’ home, which was being renovated.
During one of those construction days, Jonathan told the Stumpes that his village was so poor, everyone would pool what little money they had to send a single child to school. He was lucky to have been chosen. After graduating from university, he tried to get a job at the Limbe Wildlife Centre, but there were no jobs, so he offered to work for free.
I told them, ‘I will prove to you that I am a smart man and a hard worker and when a job comes available you will have no choice but to hire me,’ he said.
Jonathan not only got hired, he ultimately became head of staff.
As Jonathan prepared to leave Atlanta, Michele asked what his favorite part of the trip was.
Ahh, the best part was helping you and Kerry to build your house, he replied.
Jonathan’s faith in hard work and desire to give back stayed with Michele.
A way to help
It was spring 2009, Michele’s favorite time of year. Azaleas and dogwoods bloomed everywhere. She was on her way to coach her step-daughter’s pole vault team at Riverwood High School. Kerry’s daughter, Kourtney had moved in with them when she was 12.
Heavy raindrops splattered on the windshield when Michele pulled into the parking lot, and a sense of despair settled over her. Kourtney would be graduating soon and Michele was overcome with fear that she was running out of time. She and Kerry had made financial contributions to Limbe. Michele volunteered with a number of organizations. Still, she didn’t feel a significant sense of accomplishment. She picked up the phone and called her father.
Dad, I was put on this earth for a reason, she said. I’m supposed to be out there changing the world, but I’m not doing it. I’m making small strides, but I’m not making a big splash. I feel so inadequate and powerless.
Don’t expend all of your energy trying to move mountains and change the world, said her father. Focus instead on changing one person’s world at a time. You might be surprised at how big an impact you can make if you allow yourself to take it one step at a time.
That same year Michele’s firm won a major settlement for a client. It’s not often you have a $2.4 million check sitting on your desk. Michele and Kerry knew they wanted to use a portion of their percentage of the money to help wildlife conservation, but how?
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Limbe had grown familiar by now. Each time Michele visited, she noticed that the city and the banana plantations got bigger and the rainforest got smaller.
Ayyoooowwww! The outburst reverberated through the wildlife center, followed by a panicked chorus of ooo, oooo, oooos from the chimps, signifying that one of their own was in need.
It was Jacob Tebo, head of construction at Limbe for more than 20 years. He had smashed his hand with a hammer. It wasn’t like him to make a mistake like that. Michele later learned he was off his game because he’d been getting up at 5 a.m. three times a week to walk one-and-a-half hours to his daughter’s school to beg the administrators to let her stay. She was in the top 5 percent of her class, but Jacob’s family didn’t have the money to pay the next installment on her tuition and the school was getting ready to kick her out again.
The yearly tuition in Cameroon was the equivalent of the average wildlife center workers’ annual salary — $500 — and it would be a month before the family could pull together the rest of the money for the semester. Michele learned that for the few workers who managed to send their children in school, this was a common plight.
It suddenly became clear to Michele how she and Kerry could help. They would provide scholarships for the children of Limbe’s sanctuary workers. Not only could they educate the children, but they could remove a significant burden from the workers’ lives, which was affecting their ability to care for the wildlife.
Michele and Kerry immediately established 18 scholarships for the children of Limbe workers and promised to support each recipient through high school if they performed well academically. One of their first scholarship recipients was the lemon-Starburst-lover Michael, now 15, who was behind in school because of his family’s inability to consistently pay tuition.
By 2011, the Stumpes worked through the hurdles to solidify their pilot program, and the foundation was converted into a 501-c3 nonprofit called Children of Conservation. Since that time, the program has expanded to seven sanctuaries in Cameroon, Uganda, Kenya, South Africa and Zambia. And it has contributed to the education of 200 children.
But it’s also elevated the role of the wildlife sanctuary worker, making it a sought-after position of respect.
Photo: Michele Stumpe talks to students at the secondary school in Cameroon about how animal conservation drives tourism, which creates jobs and economic stability in their community.
It was summer 2014, rainy season in Cameroon. The sound of raindrops hitting the tin roof reminded Michele of the Fourth of July back home. Lightning filled the night sky as the electricity flickered off and on. Michele and Kerry were having dinner with staff from Limbe Wildlife Centre. Jacob Tebo, a gentle, quiet man who had barely said more than hello or thank you in all the years Michele has known him, sat down beside her. Tears filled his eyes as he put his hand on Michele’s.
I have seen many people come to Africa for the animals. But Children of Conservation is the first to come to help us, those who care for the animals, he said. For this, I have no words. We know the importance of these animals, but we have no voice because we have no education. You give us a voice by educating our children.
He explained that only diplomats and village leaders could afford to educate their children in Cameroon.
But now, I walk with my head high, because everyone sees that what I do is important, because what I do means I can send my children to school, he said.
All four of Jacob’s kids are scholarship recipients. The oldest is about to graduate high school and has been in the top 10 percent of her class since she started. All 18 of the original Children of Conservation scholarship recipients are still in school; 11 of them in college.
Children of Conservation continues to expand its reach. It recently built its first school near Chimfunshi Wildlife Orphanage in Zambia, where it will serve the children of five villages. And the Stumpes’ devotion to helping African wildlife has trickled down to the next generation. Daughter Kourtney, a Georgia State University graduate, is on her second solo trip to Africa, teaching sanctuary workers how to use data collection technology to improve conservation efforts.
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One night last month, Michele Stumpe glanced at the antique clock in her office located in an office park in Cobb County. It was 7:10 p.m. As she prepared to head home for the evening, an email came in from scholarship recipient Michael, who graduates from college in December. He told her he plans to work as an accountant for a Cameroon wildlife organization.
“If there is ever anything you or Children of Conservation would ever need here, I would be so pleased to donate my sincere services,” he wrote. “This is the only way I have to show my sincere gratitude for such a great impact of education that Children of Conservation has given me.”
It was proof that her father’s advice was sound. Trying to change the world is hard. But changing one person’s life can resonate in remarkable ways.
“You might be surprised,” said Michele, reflecting on Michael’s email a few days later, “when one of the lives that’s been changed the most is your own.”
ABOUT THE STORY
Freelance writer Echo Garrett likes to tell the story about the time Michele Stumpe, Echo’s sister-in-law, nearly missed Thanksgiving dinner one year because she encountered an injured squirrel en route. In typical Michele fashion, she put the family dinner on hold so she could take the animal to the vet. The story illustrates just how deep Michele’s passion for animals runs. So no one was surprised when Michele and her husband, Kerry, spent their honeymoon volunteering at a wildlife sanctuary in Africa. But then the narrative changed. One day it dawned on Michele that focusing her philanthropic efforts on the people who worked at wildlife sanctuaries could improve the lives of their children and the viability of their communities, which could in turn improve the level of care they provided the primates in their charge. This is a story about how moving mountains starts with a single stone.
Suzanne Van Atten
Personal Journeys editor
ABOUT THE REPORTER
Echo Garrett is a freelance journalist who has contributed to more than 100 national media outlets. Her previous Personal Journey, “Desert Renewal,” about her husband’s recovery from a brain injury, won the American Society of Journalists and Authors award for outstanding first-person article. She lives in Marietta with her husband, Kevin Garrett. Echo co-founded the nonprofit Orange Duffel Bag Initiative and is co-author of “My Orange Duffel Bag: A Journey to Radical Change” and 12 other books.