Lisle, Illinois ~ Dalitso Sulamoyo arrived in America homeless, friendless, with a few dollars and a bag of clothes.
He came to the United States to escape Malawi – a country of 12 million people in southeast Africa and one of the poorest countries in the world – where the average life expectancy is 50 years of age, where 15 percent of the population is infected with AIDs and where more than 1 million children are orphans.
“Growing up in Malawi, there was a prevailing sense of hopelessness,” Sulamoyo said. “My future was supposed to be decided for me because of the circumstances of where I lived and where I was born. I was supposed to be a statistic like many of the people whom I grew up with.”
Instead, Sulamoyo left his homeland and was taken in by an American family, who paid for his undergraduate and graduate education without asking for a penny in recompense. He graduated magna cum laude from Illinois College and earned two master’s degrees from the University of Illinois at Springfield.
Today, the Springfield, Illinois resident and recent graduate of Benedictine University’s Ph.D. in Organization Development (OD) program heads the Illinois Association of Community Action Agencies (IACAA), a membership organization of 40 nonprofit and public entities that provides an array of services to children, families and senior citizens throughout Illinois.
“Because of my background, poverty and the need to fight it has always influenced my academic and career aspirations,” Sulamoyo said. “I have thus dedicated my life to fighting man’s worst enemies – poverty, ignorance, disease and oppression.”
The mission of IACAA is to help people and change their lives by giving them a hand up and not a hand out. The organization is one of the last remnants of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty.
“For the last 13 years that I have been the leader of this five decades-old movement in Illinois, I have witnessed the transformation of people’s lives and communities through the fulfillment of Community Action’s mission,” he said. “I believe in the effectiveness of Community Action’s approach in fighting poverty, which it has done for almost 50 years.”
But responding to the needs of Illinois’ poor and needy is just part of IACAA’s work under Sulamoyo’s leadership. In 2010, he led a delegation of five community action professionals to Haiti after the devastating earthquake left more than 100,000 dead and more than 1.6 million homeless.
“We decided that raising funds and collecting necessities for the people of Haiti was the easiest part we could have played,” Sulamoyo said. “We wanted to be on the ground with the people of Haiti to assist them with their recovery efforts.”
Despite warnings by the U.S. Department of State to avoid certain impoverished neighborhoods around Port au Prince due to violence and kidnappings, Sulamoyo and his team helped to rebuild a school that had been destroyed by the earthquake. Some of the money they raised was used to hire local Haitian labor.
“We rebuilt the school, had new desks and chairs made, purchased books and materials for the students and provided a scholarship to college for the main teacher of the school,” Sulamoyo said. “It was gratifying to know that we played a small part in providing some sense of normalcy back to Haitian children in the most difficult and tragic of circumstances.”
That same year, Sulamoyo was named the recipient of the Martin Luther King Jr. Humanitarian Award from the Illinois Head Start Association.
“Being in a position to give back and make a difference in the lives of those who are in desperate need in these very trying times is indeed gratifying,” he said. “I can only hope that I have made a lasting contribution to what we do in improving and changing lives for the better.”
Sadly, community action groups are not without their detractors. They are haunted by a history plagued by agencies that were shut down by the government because of their ineffectiveness. They have also been stymied for no other reason than differing philosophically and politically with those in power at the state and federal levels.
Sulamoyo decided to pursue a Ph.D. at Benedictine to help him overcome the many organizational challenges his members face on a daily basis.
“I had been searching for a program that would elevate my leadership skills and enhance my instincts in an environment that proved to be fast-paced and very dynamic,” he said. “We needed our agencies to not only overcome organizational challenges, but to excel as organizations of excellence.”
Sulamoyo instituted a number of organizational changes that improved membership’s performance. The IACAA was rewarded by being included in President Barack Obama’s efforts to boost the American economy with job creation through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
“We knew that our success was contingent upon our ability to plan effectively and to ramp up our organization’s systems, structures and processes,” he said. “OD allowed us to respond strategically and systematically by creating green jobs in a troubled economy while helping thousands of families save on utility costs in the state of Illinois.”
Meanwhile, his parents, sister and two brothers continue to live in Malawi. His parents are retired from civil service but continue to farm. Sulamoyo hopes to return one day to his native country and help his homeland emerge from the poverty and desperation that has ravaged it for hundreds of years.
“Even though my battle with poverty has been here in America, I am striving to one day give the same hope and opportunities that I have had here in America to the people of Malawi – the hope that I have seen in the eyes of those in this country who find themselves in the predicament of poverty and have the opportunity for transformation to self-sufficiency,” he said.
Benedictine University is an independent Roman Catholic institution located in Lisle, Illinois just 25 miles west of Chicago, and has branch campuses in Springfield, Illinois and Mesa, Arizona. Founded in 1887, Benedictine provides 55 undergraduate majors and 16 graduate and four doctoral programs. Benedictine University is ranked No. 1 among the country's fastest-growing campuses between 2000-2010 in The Chronicle of Higher Education's list of private nonprofit research institutions, and Forbes magazine named Benedictine among "America's Top Colleges" for the third consecutive year in 2013. Benedictine University's Master of Business Administration (M.B.A.) program is listed by Crain's Chicago Business as the fifth largest in the Chicago area in 2013.