MAPLE LAKE, Minn. (CNS) -- Carol McBrady has no biological children.
Yet on the streets of Lusaka, the capital of Zambia, she is known as Mama Carol.
It started 16 years ago when she was invited to visit Africa to help care for children with AIDS. She was supposed to go to Zimbabwe, but violence rocking the country diverted the trip to Zambia.
Ultimately, the journey changed the course of her life. After two trips to Zambia, she sold her home in Crystal, Minnesota, and moved to Lusaka in 2004. She later started Action for Children -- Zambia, a nonprofit that helps street children by providing crisis intervention, housing -- and most importantly -- a sense of family.
She also teaches the children how to play blackjack.
It sounds simple, but to the kids, who have suffered incredible hardships such as abandonment by their parents, playing the game gives them, in many cases, their first meaningful contact with an adult.
"I think the first day or the second day, they took me to the streets, and I worked with the street children and fell in love," said McBrady, 58, who maintains ties with her parish, St. Timothy Church in Maple Lake.
"They are amazing young people. There's so much potential ... in those streets and so much humanity and so much joy. I had a lot of fun. We played blackjack, and we ate peanut butter sandwiches," she told The Catholic Spirit, newspaper of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.
It wasn't long before she learned of the tragic circumstances for the hundreds of children who roam Lusaka's streets because they are abandoned by their parents. The saddest cases involve one parent who died and the other deciding he or she doesn't want the child.
Many kids turn to crime, selling drugs or stealing just to eat, McBrady said. Most are sexually abused at some point. The double whammy of abandonment and abuse leads to hardened hearts and deeply rooted anger.
As McBrady prayed about how to make a difference, she realized that family is the one thing the children need but don't have. That's when she decided to carve out a role as their mother.
She said God called her to Zambia.
"You know in your head that this is exactly what you're supposed to do, but in your heart, you're going, 'That's 10,000 miles from home, there's no electricity, there's no water, there's no cappuccino,'" she said. "It was a big change and a long process, but in the end, finally in 2004, I said, 'That's it.' I sold my house, took the money and went (to Zambia)."
She started modestly, living in a small apartment and launching the nonprofit.
In 2007, she built Salvation Home to provide a stable living environment. It has 22 beds, but often more children temporarily live there. She later added a poultry farm -- Kulanga Bana Farm -- to provide permanent homes and work opportunities. In 2016, she opened Redemption House, a boarding home for children attending secondary school. The ministry has an annual budget of $150,000, and annually serves 250 to 300 young people.
The success stories are mounting.
She recalled Jonathan, who came to McBrady's attention in 2005 when he was about 8 years old. The boy's mother had another baby and couldn't take care of him; the father was out of the picture. Jonathan was sent into the streets to work and bring home money for rent. When Jonathan didn't make enough money, the mother kicked him out. The mother eventually brought Jonathan to McBrady, seeking rent money.
"I said, 'I'll pay your rent this month. Just leave him with me,'" McBrady said. "So, I paid the rent and I took that boy."
He was in rough shape. He had AIDS and tuberculosis, and it seemed unlikely he would live long. McBrady placed him at Salvation Home and his life turned around.
"There was no reason for this kid to be hopeful, but he was hopeful and wonderful," McBrady said. "At this point in time, he has finished grade 12 and he's the house parent at Redemption House for us. He's alive and healthy."
McBrady recently shared her story with Archbishop Bernard A. Hebda of St. Paul and Minneapolis, who now is among her supporters. She returned to the Twin Cities in November to raise money and visit her family and parish. She has six living siblings, plus her mother, Mary McBrady, 85. All are involved in the ministry, though none has visited Zambia yet.
"Kids are important, and kids are important to my family," said Carol McBrady's sister, Betty Thomes, 61, a parishioner of St. Timothy and chairwoman of Action for Children -- Zambia's board. "So, when we're changing lives of kids, that's huge."
McBrady knows it's better for the children to be with family rather than to grow up in an institution.
"It's really important to build families, not just orphanages," she said. "Our kids don't have families, but they're not in orphanages. We make a little family for them, and that becomes their permanent, forever family. It's more work, but in the end, it's probably less costly."
At Christmas, McBrady helped the children celebrate Jesus' birth. It's a highlight of her year. Staff and volunteers spend hours wrapping gifts for each child.
The Christmas story is an annual reminder of why she keeps doing what she does, and will continue "until God tells me not to." It also points to the most important element of her ministry: faith.
"You can do nothing without faith in this world, nothing," she said. "It wouldn't even make sense to talk about this without understanding that I am there because of my faith. I am there because I really firmly believe that God did not create street children. That's a man-made problem and God wants us to solve it."