U.S. aid agencies must be focused in their overseas development work on supporting highly localized family and community initiatives, Marguerite “Maggy” Barankitse said during a UNICEF meeting in Atlanta May 15. She said that they also must be wary of the misappropriation of funds by politicians, whom she mistrusts and often publicly denounces.

The Atlanta office of UNICEF organized the meeting as part of its Southeast Speaker Series under the title “Lighting a Candle in the Midst of Darkness” after being notified that Ms. Barankitse was to be in town to receive an honorary degree from Emory University.

Ms. Barankitse often cites the women who protect and raise children as “candles.” No “candle” shined brighter than Ms. Barankitse herself in October 1993 after a Tutsi mob tied her to a chair in the village of Ruyigi, Burundi, stripped her of her clothing and made her watch the slaughter of 72 Hutus around her over a period of 10 hours.

As a Tutsi her life had been saved, but her refusal to abide solely by ethnic loyalties placed her in the midst of the horrendous bloodbath.

At the time she was working as a secretary for the local Catholic bishop. Before the killing began she managed to ransom 25 children whose parents had been murdered. She also saved seven other orphans, including Hutus and Tutsis, whom she had hidden in the bishop’s residence.

Once the immediate killing was over, she cared for the surviving children and realized that her mission in life was to provide shelter and sustenance for them and the many others who had been caught up in the genocide that ravaged the East African nation.

Her story, which has gained legendary status at the same time that she often has been labeled as “crazy” for bucking what appear to be insurmountable odds, includes her visit to the Belgian embassy in Bujumbura, Burundi’s capital, where she managed to gain support for establishing a center, known as Maison Shalom or House of Peace, for children traumatized or mutilated during the fighting.

The first Maison Shalom has been replicated several times and are at the core of Burundi’s humanitarian efforts on behalf of children. They now are part of a network including schools, hospitals and even banks that provide micro-loans, all geared to supporting the families raising children.

The village now also has a movie theater and swimming pool, which Ms. Barankitse justified as community development initiatives providing the children with the means of imagining better lives.

While her initial accomplishments were the result of her own actions, she currently leads a non-governmental organization that in based in Luxembourg and has 300 full-time employees.

For more than a decade she has partnered with UNICEF, the United Nations Children’s Fund, to reach areas inaccessible to other aid agencies, providing emergency health care and counseling for victims of rape and other violence.

Despite their close cooperation, she is not above needling UNICEF or any other aid organization for funding elaborate headquarters or extensive bureaucracies at the expense of working with children and their mothers in the field.

And she was particularly critical of politicians who squandered aid funds and couldn’t be relied on to rebuild the lives of the hundreds of thousands of children who have been orphaned and maimed both physically and spiritually by the violence.

She has been honored often including awards from the French and the Dutch governments and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. She also has received the Opus Prize, a faith-based $1 million award. The week prior to receiving the honorary degree of humane letters from Emory, she received a similar degree from Duke University.

Given her heroism in the face of violence and her efforts on behalf of children, the UNICEF staff organized the event that brought together Ms. Barankitse with Nancy Chandler, CEO of the Georgia Center for Child Advocacy and Deborah Richardson, vice president of the National Center for Civil and Human Rights, who served as a moderator.

She was welcomed at the Southeast Speakers Series by Bernard Taylor Sr., who chairs the Product Liability Group of the Atlanta based-law firm Alston & Bird LLP, which hosted the event.

Mr. Taylor also is chair of  UNICEF’s Southeast region and reviewed the agency’s ZERO campaign that seeks to reduce to zero preventable child deaths, exploited children, children denied the opportunity to learn and grow and children left unprotected in emergencies.

Ms. Chandler made it clear that national boundaries don’t protect children from violence and reviewed her organizations services on behalf of children caught up in sex trafficking and other forms of abuse in Georgia.

For a video of Ms. Barankitse’s development efforts in Ruyigi, click here. To reach the UNICEF office in Atlanta, call 404-881-2700 for Alissa Silverman, managing director, or 404-239-3291, for Jeremy Cole, major gifts officer.