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Halifax philanthropist dies at 39 after two-year battle with cancer

From her humble beginnings in the Elkhorn community of Halifax County, Karen Cardwell-Abebefe knew what it was like to do without many material things.

And because of that, she made it her life’s calling to make sure orphans around the world had a safe place to call home.

Cardwell-Abebefe died last Monday succumbing to a two-year battle with liver cancer.

She leaves behind numerous loved ones including seven children ranging in age from 4 to 14, three adopted as Nigerian orphans.

She was 39.

Cardwell grew up in a family watching as her mother tirelessly worked at Rochester Button Factory until she became disabled.

A 1988 graduate of Halifax County Senior High School, she left her hometown to pursue a nursing career at Norfolk State University.

It was during this time she met her husband, Dr. David Abebefe, who also worked in the medical profession.

Uniting their passions for helping others, the Abebefes would create and found Zoya Ministries, a non-profit organization providing medical services and missionaries to the less fortunate in Third World countries.

It was while visiting an orphanage on a 2006 medical tour in Otutulu Village in Kogi State, Nigeria, that she became heartbroken over the living conditions of the children who called it home.

And according to her brother, Thomas Cardwell, she acted on her feelings and with her family made a decision to adopt three of the orphans, Favor, Klaus and Stephen, bringing them back to the states to join the Abebefe children, Zoya, Ruth, Joshua and Caleb.

Favor was abandoned when she was just one month old. Klaus weighed just two pounds when he was left at the orphanage.

Stephen was simply unwanted.

His mother died when he was about four, and his dad remarried, and the lady that he remarried didn’t want to have Steven in the house, family members said.

The adopted orphans were readily accepted into the family with open arms from not only the Abebefe couple, but also their four children.

A philanthropist, health care advocate and Christian missionary, Abebefe didn’t stop there.

Determined to improve the lifestyle and learning conditions for the children left behind, the Abebefes set out to build a better home and campus for the orphans living in Otutulu Village – a home called Noah’s Ark.

According to her brother, at the time of Karen’s death last week, the Noah’s Ark project was 80 percent complete and will serve as a home and school for 300 orphans.

For her many humanitarian and philanthropic efforts, Karen was recognized last year with an invitation to attend Glamour magazine’s Woman Award which also was attended by First Lady Michelle Obama, Maya Angelou, Maria Shriver and U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice.

Two years after adopting the Nigerian orphans and spearheading the Noah’s Ark project, Abebefe was diagnosed with liver cancer.

According to her brother, she underwent chemotherapy treatments at NIH in Bethesda and traveled to the University of Pittsburgh where she participated in an innovative cancer treatment.

However, the cancer progressed this year in late spring, her brother added.

A homegoing service for Karen Cardwell-Abebefe was held Sunday at County Line Baptist Church in Vernon Hill.