Teacher and benefactress
by James Leonard
Naomi Corera doesn't look intimidating. Fifty-eight years old and ninety-eight pounds, she is slim and slightly stooped. Yet despite her small stature, her aura of high moral seriousness makes it hard for people to tell her no. In the past nine years, the former Montessori teacher and administrator has raised more than $300,000 and garnered tens of thousands of hours of services for her one-woman charity, Children Waiting Everywhere.
Born and educated in Sri Lanka, Corera came to America at twenty on a green card and a prayer. She wound up owning her own Montessori school, sold it, worked with the poor in Mexico, and then went to work for Tom Monaghan's burgeoning Catholic educational empire.
She was running Shepherd Montessori Center for Monaghan when she met Father George, a Ugandan priest who'd come to Eastern Michigan University to get an MBA and wound up working as chaplain at Domino's Farms. Touched by the priest's stories of the suffering of his country's children, she raised $5,000 from the parents of her students and flew to Uganda for Thanksgiving in 2000.
“I thought I was going to deliver the check and come back,” Corera explains. “But something else happened. I fell into villages and villages of children who were orphaned by AIDS. . . . Seeing their faces left an indelible mark on my heart. I couldn't continue to live as a normal person. So I said: 'We're getting to work here!'”
Corera came back and raised another $10,000 in four months. Then she finished the projects the first $5,000 had started: building two water tanks, living quarters, a chapel, a roof, and flush toilets for a village school. Soon after, she incorporated her charity. Searching for a name, Corera says, “I closed my eyes, and all I saw was children staring at me, children waiting everywhere for me to do something for them. And I said 'That's the name: Children Waiting Everywhere.'”
Born in 1950 in Sri Lanka, the fourth of
six children, Corera was schooled there by Irish nuns and became a certified Montessori teacher. After teaching in Sri Lanka for a few years, she responded to an ad for teachers placed in a local paper by a man in Michigan. She arrived to a snow-covered landscape in November
1970 wearing a sari. The man turned out not to have any schools-he was in the dry cleaning business-but somehow he did get her a green card. With that, Corera landed a job as a teaching assistant with Gateway Academy in Bloomfield Hills, earning her room and board in a wealthy household by chauffeuring the children. After teaching at other schools there, she started her own, Shepherd Montessori in Bloomfield Hills. By 1990, she'd brought her entire family - five brothers and sisters and her widowed mother - to the United States.
“I thought, 'Well, my job is done. Now I can do what I really want to do,'” Corera recalls. “I sold Shepherd Montessori and went to work in Mexico on a mission with the poor from 1990 through 1994. I was very happy there, and I thought I'd never come back - when I got a call from Tom Monaghan.”
Corera's sister had married Paul Roney, Monaghan's chief financial officer. Roney recommended her to be the principal of a school Monaghan wanted to start. She says running Spiritus Sanctus Academy was wonderful - for awhile. “After three years, Mr. Monaghan decided to change things. He'd always wanted nuns to run the school, and at last he found an order of nuns to do it.”
Corera went to Monaghan and told him she was ready to go back to Mexico, but, she says, “he wouldn't hear of it. He said 'Naomi, America needs you!' And I said, 'But what am I going to do?' And he said, 'How about a Montessori school?' And I said, 'OK - but I get to name the school.' You know how he
names everything 'Ave Maria?' Not this time. I told him, 'If I'm going to stay, I'm going to name it.' And I named it after Psalm XXIII just like I did my other school. You know: 'The Lord is my shepherd.'”
Though she's spent her life working with children, Corera never married. “It's part of God's plan,” she explains. “Children tie you down. If I had children, my children would come first. Now every child comes first.”
But when asked if she'd thought of becoming a nun, Corera snorts incredulously. “Me? A nun? Why? To follow rules and orders and live in a convent? How could I give up the freedom that I have?”
For her fiftieth birthday party, Corera asked friends to bring a check instead of a present. That's how the initial $5,000 for Uganda was raised. The Children Waiting Everywhere fund-raiser became an annual affair. Families provide the entertainment, and chicken dinners are donated by Doug and Kris Busch, of Busch's supermarkets.
The Busches met Naomi when their son started at Shepherd Montessori. “She's the most energetic and passionate and enthusiastic woman I've ever met,” says Doug. Kris adds: “You can't say no to her because she gives everything she has.”
When asked why she's been so successful raising money, Corera replies, “Americans are more generous than people in other countries, and not only the rich. Everybody gives according to their means. But they want to help someone they can trust. And they can trust us. All our money goes directly into the job. Nobody gets paid. Everybody gives their time. . . . Every donor so far I've known personally.”
Among her biggest donors is Tim Patton, chairman of Patton Holdings and owner of Flagship Private Air. Patton blushes when asked about his generosity. “She said to us, 'Did you know the people in this village have to walk miles for water and even then there are issues of sanitation?'” So Patton and his wife, Shann, wrote a check for $10,000 to set up a rainwater purification system.
Corera now is working full time to raise money for Children Waiting Everywhere. She and her mother live rent free in one of Monaghan's houses near Domino's Farms. In Uganda, she's set up three schools-and in May headed there to open a fourth. “We teach trades: carpentry, sewing, and construction,” she says. “And we just had our first gradua-tion in Uganda. We gave them all presents: tools or a sewing machine. That way they're set up to be self sufficient.”
In another step toward self-sufficiency, in 2004 Corera persuaded the Ugandan government to donate land for a tea plantation. Now, she's hoping to rebuild a dilapidated health clinic and get land donated to build a tea factory. But above all, her eyes remain on individual children waiting for help-like Maria Goretti, who is named for a Catholic martyr, lives in a mud hut, and cooks her family's meals over an open fire. “She's first in her class of 140 children,” Corera says, “and she wants to be a doctor.” To help make that happen, Children Waiting Everywhere is paying her school and boarding fees.
And there's Allen Akumumpa. Born with cerebral palsy, Allen had never stood up straight, much less walked, until Children Waiting Everywhere brought him to America for an operation. Corerra prevailed on Dr. Ed Wojtys, the director of U-M's MedSport Program at Domino's Farms, to do the operation for free. Allen should be walking by November.
Still taking care of her mother, Carrera eventually plans to move to Africa.
“But while I'm still here, my biggest goal is to raise awareness among children that we are deeply blessed and we should share with our brothers and sisters around the world,” she says. “And my other goal is to raise awareness among adults that they can do something.
“I'm just a puny little kindergarten schoolteacher, and look what I've done. My message is: Don't wait. Do it now. Each one of us can do it.”
[Originally published in June, 2009.]