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89-year-old Seattle woman opens Afghanistan's first licensed nursery

By Atia Abawi, NBC News correspondent

Betty Tisdale, 89, is on a mission to help children around the world.

“I feel that there is nothing impossible to do.  And a war isn’t going to stop me,” Tisdale said adamantly, sitting in the nursery she helped open in Afghanistan’s capital.

In June, Tisdale, who lives in Seattle, took her third trip to  Afghanistan where her grassroots organization Helping And Loving Orphans (HALO), is helping some of the country’s most vulnerable.  Partnered with a non-governmental organization, PARSA, they support the House of Flowers Orphanage in Kabul.

On this trip, Tisdale’s main mission was babies.  The money she brought in from donors, including third graders near Seattle who raised $1,354, was to open Afghanistan’s first-ever licensed nursery.

“I want to be able to help them,” she said.  “It could be the beginning of something really special in Afghanistan.”

When Tisdale was a young girl her mother was diagnosed with tuberculosis and placed in a sanitarium.  Later, her father died when she was only 9 years old.  Relatives stepped in to raise her after she and her siblings were split up.

“I’m not dwelling on that,” she told NBC News, in high spirits as she explained why she chooses to assist orphans in foreign countries. 

“Orphans overseas don’t always get adopted. And they don’t have a foster home to go to in the next  two years,” she said.  “What they need most is that feeling of being loved for who they are, not because they are an orphan.”

So Tisdale is providing love everywhere she can, and has been doing it since 1961.

She organized  the baby lift in 1975, just days before the fall of Saigon and the end to the Vietnam War.  Tisdale helped evacuate 219 Vietnamese orphans, brought them to the United States and found them all homes within a month.

Since then she has opened orphanages throughout the world including in Vietnam, Mexico, Haiti, Nepal and Colombia.

And when asked how she is able to sponsor all these projects, her answer was simple:  “I’m a great beggar.  I really am.”

We didn’t see her beg on the Afghan streets but we did see her in action bargaining at the baby shops in Kabul.  And she’s definitely not afraid to tug on some heartstrings. 

“These babies have no mother, no father,” she would say, leaning over the counter as she spoke to the store clerks. To help orphans in many countries, every penny counts.

Some of the clerks were so moved by Tisdale’s story they told her they would speak to their storeowners to donate supplies to the nursery for the Muslim religious obligation of zakat, helping those less fortunate.

Tisdale has many reasons for helping these orphans and one of them is to help Afghanistan gain bright leaders that can one day save a nation in turmoil.

“These kids will never go to war, they’re going to be too smart for it,” she said.

Those she works with gave us a more ominous reason for why more Americans should care about Afghan children.

“Although our politicians say Osama bin Laden is gone, what created Osama bin Laden is not gone at all,” Marnie Gustavson, Executive Director of PARSA, told NBC News.

As for Tisdale, she promises to come back to Afghanistan next year to check the progress of the nursery and orphanage.  She said she would continue to come every year, even after American troops withdraw.

"If you get to know the people, you get to know the children, how can you just say, 'Okay the war is over.'" she said. "I'm not here because of the war anyhow."