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Local green developer heads to Ethiopia

By the time Levi and Jessie Benkert had driven home from the airport, the young couple knew what they had to do. They would sell most of their belongings, pack up their house in West Sacramento, put their development firm LJ Urban on hold and move their family to Africa.

“We just have to,” Levi said. “There’s no other choice.”

In early March, Levi spent 14 days in Ethiopia, assisting a small group with setting up an orphanage for a handful of children who come from a village in south-western Ethiopia where the Karo tribe lives. The Karo people continue a 200-year-old practice in which they kill young children considered ethnically “un-pure” or “unclean” by throwing them in the river with their hands tied or putting babies out in the bush to starve to death, Levi said.

The group met with tribal elders and asked to remove the nine children facing death from the village. The group rented a house in the nearby town of Jinka—a two-day drive away—and set up a makeshift orphanage. But then group members dispersed and returned to their own lives, leaving the orphanage’s future in-flux.

On the long flight back to the United States, Levi realized the struggles this orphanage will face, so the Benkerts decided to commit one year of their lives to establishing the orphanage and caring for the Karo children.

The decision was surprisingly easy, said Levi, who along with his wife spent their childhoods and teenage years traveling around the world doing humanitarian work with their parents.

“There are 143 million orphans in the world,” Levi said, “Until we all start to step up and do something about that, the problem is only going to get worse.”

The Benkerts own LJ Urban, the development firm based in Midtown that’s responsible for Good, a green-housing project in West Sacramento. In mid-May, the Benkerts and their three children will leave for Ethiopia and LJ Urban’s projects will be on hiatus until the family returns in 2010.

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