Video: Former drug dealer now saving kids

By Ann Curry
NBC News
updated 3/24/2008 8:10:09 AM ET 2008-03-24T12:10:09

"Seeing them here without parents, seeing them here with tattered clothes, and running barefoot on lava," said Art Lucier. "I hear the stories, and if those were my children I don't know what I would do."

Art Lucier is a man whose troubled past took him on a quest for redemption into Africa’s heart of darkness.

Three years ago he arrived in eastern Congo -- a country about a quarter of the size of the United States -- where the 10-year ethnic war for political power and mineral wealth continues today.

Art Lucier: I had never been anywhere before. So when I came here it shocked me actually.

It shocked him into finding himself, by discovering that a 38-year-old man of lowly ambitions could make such a soaring difference in the lives of the most vulnerable.

Art Lucier: This area is known for children to go missing. There are some children that have been used as concubines by the rebel soldiers. Some of the boys are actually taught and trained to kill.

Art would discover some of the most disturbing stories of children and war in the city of Goma, where lava from a recent volcanic eruption razed much of the city.

Art Lucier: There's no water, there's no trees, there's no greenery around, there's no room for goats or to plant anything.

And yet, in the middle of this shanty town, five wooden shacks sprang up as a haven for some 150 orphans of Congo’s war.

Art Lucier: If this place wasn't here they would die, simple. It's straight up, they would die.

Art showed us the meager facilities the children call home.

Art Lucier: There's eight kids in this room and but we don't have enough beds so we have people sleeping just on the cement slab.

But even in this place of refuge the children have to hike more than six miles for water and cannot even count on a daily meal.

Art Lucier: So they've been eating once a day, sometimes once every two days. Sometimes, not at all. Some of our kids here have died actually as of late, malnutrition, so it is about survival.

Among the survivors is 12-year-old Sam, who, as a 7-month-old baby, was found in the arms of his murdered mother.

“They killed my mother and my father,” he says, “and they slashed me with a machete and cut off my hand.”

Chantal was just 6 years old when she was taken by soldiers. She spent nine years as their sex slave and became pregnant.

Art Lucier: When you become pregnant, they will kill your baby as soon as you start to show. She knew she was pregnant, she was starting to show. She decided she would rather die than have her baby die. So she made a run for it. So we have a baby with a baby inside the orphanage.

Most children here carry stories of tragedy that are hard to comprehend.

Art is trying to help all of them before the orphanage settles the lucky ones into families.

But he might never have come to Congo, if not for some bad history of his own.

He grew up in Terrace, a poor logging town in western Canada, in a family troubled with alcohol. At 16, Art dropped out of school for the streets, and two years later was dealing cocaine.

He believes he drew his 17-year-old girlfriend Crystal into drugs, even though they had a daughter. Then their life together was cut short as Crystal got into a drug deal that turned bad.

Art Lucier: She was murdered. Her body dumped outside the local airport in Terrace. They didn't find out who the killer was for five months. I was one of the suspects.

Though Art had nothing to do with the drug deal, he wrapped himself in guilt -- and worse.

He gave up his daughter for adoption, perhaps never to see her again, and thought about ending it all.

Art Lucier: I was about to check out of life if that's all life had to offer.

But then he says he reached out.

Art Lucier: Instead of committing suicide, I decided to throw in a prayer, just to see if there was a God and he answered me, I feel.

Art gave up drugs, got healthy and rebuilt his life, helped by his new Christian faith.

He got married, had twin boys, and began working with troubled teens.

And yet, for years, he felt unfulfilled.

Then a young evangelist asked for volunteers to build a dormitory at a new orphanage in Africa.

Art, a self-taught carpenter, jumped at the chance to help, and that's how he ended up in Congo.

After the dormitory project was completed, Art didn't stop there. Hearing the children's stories -- and seeing conditions at the old orphanage -- he was driven to complete the new one.

Art Lucier: It just spurs me on to do something for them. It's much easier to turn our back on what we -- "Oh I don't know, don't tell me, I don't want to be held accountable.” Now I’m held accountable for what I’ve heard. I know there's need and suffering here. And I am being accountable.

And so he went back to Congo and, with a group of Christian friends backed by a non-religious charity , bought more land, cleared the jungle, and continued building a second dormitory, a protective wall to keep out militants, and the beginnings of a school for children like Chantal and Sam.

Ann Curry (with Sam): You smile when you hear "Art Lucier." Why do you smile when you hear that name? Is he a good man?

Sam (through translator): He's a very good man.

The new orphanage has been a stop-start project for three years now as the cash flows in and then dries up.

Art Lucier: I wasn't really sure what I was getting into, not really sure what I’m doing now, but we're just doing what we can.

And little by little, rock by rock, it's going up.

“Art has made a huge difference here," says the orphanage director, called Mama Jane."God bless Art for what he's done.”

Art Lucier: I don't know if I’m making a difference, I’d like to think I am. Maybe one day they'll move on to this property and have a bit better of a life.

If Art doesn't know whether he has changed any lives, he believes his mission in Congo has already changed his own.

Art Lucier: I love to talk about what God has done for me. He's changed my heart. Maybe I’ve had to come halfway around the world to really find that out, but I’m finding that out.

Finding out that his faith is giving hope to those who have so little.

Art Lucier: We see a desert out there and we're throwing a drop of water at it, hoping that maybe it turns a desert into a place of plenty for the children.

Just a few years ago Art Lucier's daughter suddenly contacted him. She's now an important part of his life.

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