Giving to live for

Sherry Holbrook and the spirit of Annie B’s

Sherry Holbrook with children at the orphanage in Zambia. The woman in the rear is Tabitha Kaumba, who runs the facility with her husband, Shern.

Sherry Holbrook with children at the orphanage in Zambia. The woman in the rear is Tabitha Kaumba, who runs the facility with her husband, Shern.

Sherry Holbrook is a devout Christian, so events that non-Christians might see as coincidence or serendipity she tends to see as God leading her in the direction she’s meant to go.

One of those events occurred in January of 2005, she says. She was sitting in a quiet room at the London airport when she saw, of all people, a woman with whom she’d worked as part of a group supporting an orphanage in the African nation of Zambia. It was a classic small-world moment.

They began talking, and Holbrook expressed her concerns about the orphanage, which she believed was overly westernizing the children and squeezing out their cultural heritage as Zambians. The woman understood what she was saying and recommended she meet a Zambian man named Shern Kaumba. He was a school teacher who wanted to start an orphanage and shared Holbrook’s respect for Zambian culture.

Holbrook located Kaumba, and so began a relationship that continues to this day and has led to the creation of an orphanage with 23 children living in it and the near-completion of a new, larger house with capacity for 60 kids.

Supporting Kaumba and his wife, Tabitha, has become a mission for Holbrook, who lives in Chico and, with her husband, Gary, owns Holbrook’s Clearance Center furniture store on South Park Avenue. She’s created an organization, Orphan Care International, to raise funds for its operation, and travels to Zambia—a 36-hour haul—several times a year with friends and fellow supporters to bring supplies, check on the building’s progress, and otherwise maintain her relationship with the Kaumbas and the town where they live, Mazabuka.

The expanded orphanage nears completion.

But Orphan Care International is not the full extent of her charitable work. She also serves on the board of directors of the North Valley Community Foundation, and Holbrook’s Clearance Center is one of the dozen or so local businesses that contribute to the matching fund that provides the extra incentive during the Annie B’s Drive. Together those businesses have donated $50,000 this year, which with the $50,000 donated by an anonymous couple gives NVCF $100,000 to provide matching grants to the agencies participating in the drive.

The Annie B’s Community Drive is named for Annie Bidwell, the wife of Chico’s founder, and like Sherry Holbrook a devout Christian and passionate philanthropist. If there’s anybody who fully represents the spirit and commitment behind the drive, it’s Sherry Holbrook.

The Holbrooks live in a large, comfortably upper-middle-class house off Garner Lane in north Chico. They met in Ohio, married just three weeks later—that was 38 years ago—and moved to Chico in 1989. Life has been good to them, Sherry says; their business has been a success, and they’ve been able to turn it over to two sons to run, leaving her plenty of time to do what makes her most happy: give and encourage others to give.

She and Gary had long donated to charity through their church. It’s intrinsic for a caring Christian to give, she says. But it wasn’t until her first trip to Africa, with a church group, and a visit to an orphanage that she felt the call. “My heart really went out to the children,” she says.

Zambia, the former British colony of Northern Rhodesia, is a landlocked nation in the southern third of the African continent. It is most famous, perhaps, as the site of Victoria Falls, the largest waterfall in the world.

It is also a country decimated by HIV/AIDS, a disease that has infected a large percentage of an entire generation of Zambians and left thousands of children orphaned to be reared by grandparents or, in too many cases, to live on the streets. These are the kids Sherry Holbrook is trying to help.

Shern Kaumba (wearing tie) with several of the orphanage children and (at left rear) an orphanage graduate named Gift now attending boarding school

She’s doing that by supporting Shern and Tabitha Kaumba, people she admires and trusts. Shern was once one of those street children, she says, kicked out of his home when his divorced mother remarried and his stepfather wanted him gone. Eventually, a nun saw him crying on the street and decided to care for him. She found the money to put him in a private boarding school, from which he went on to put himself through college and become a teacher.

When Holbrook met him, he and Tabitha had recently married and had three orphans living in their home. She began to support them, helping to expand their house until eventually it could hold 23 children, as it does now. All are thriving, she said.

The kids go to public school through the eighth grade, then attend a boarding school for what we know as high school. Holbrook has set up college funds for all the children in boarding school.

“It’s something I’m really called to do, and it thrills me to see the successes,” she says, adding, “I’m just really proud of Shern. … He’s a really brilliant man. He has faith in these children and is driven to help them.”

Currently she’s working to raise the money needed—about $15,000—to complete the expansion of the orphanage. The roof recently was put on, and the electrical system is paid for, but it still needs plumbing and finishing work.

She relies on donations from a couple of local churches, as well as the help of family members, and every penny goes to the orphanage. “We struggle,” she says. “The money’s not always there when we need it.”

She acknowledged that she often digs into her own pocket to meet expenses.

Sherry Holbrook

Holbrook has been involved with the North Valley Community Foundation for several years, since the day she met its executive director, Alexa Benson-Valavanis. She’d approached Benson-Valavanis thinking only that she wanted to donate money, but after talking with her she realized that they “really clicked” and “both had the same heart about giving.”

So when Benson-Valavanis looked at her and said, “I’d love to have you on my board,” she quickly said yes.

It’s encouraging and inspiring to work with people whose goal is to foster generosity and giving, she says. The NVCF board has provided her with “a whole other circle of friends who have heart.”

The Annie B’s Community Drive is “a really exciting time, really high energy” at NVCF, she says, not only because it’s an intense, two-month-long project involving literally thousands of people, but also because “it’s been such a success,” having raised and distributed in four years more than $4 million to more than 400 local nonprofits.

That’s exactly the kind of giving Sherry Holbrook lives for.