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Chance Encounter at Chico's

Chico’s raises funds for Nyumbani orphanage in Africa.

Susan Nichols and Dr. Tomi Browne are certain that fate made their paths cross a few months ago.

“I get goose bumps thinking about it,” said Browne, a doctor of audiology who resides in McLean.

When Browne walked into the Chico’s store on Redmond Avenue in downtown McLean two months ago, assistant manager Susan Nichols could not help but notice the ceramic bead necklace and earrings that Browne was wearing at that time.

“She said, ‘oh I really love your jewelry — where did it come from?’ and so I started explaining how I had been to this orphanage in Africa for children with HIV,” said Browne.

BROWNE HAD not gotten very far into her explanation when Nichols interrupted her and asked if the orphanage she had visited was called Nyumbani. Stunned, Browne replied that it was indeed the Nyumbani orphanage that she had visited, and further conversation revealed that the two women shared a special connection. Nichols, a former resident of both Great Falls and McLean, had met Nyumbani orphanage founder Fr. Angelo D’Agostino when she was seven years old. D’Agostino, a medical doctor, psychiatrist and Jesuit priest, eventually presided over Nichols wedding — and it was there that he introduced her to the chairman of the Nyumbani Board of Directors. Several years later, Nichols became a member of that board.

D’Agostino also happened to be a former patient of Browne. For years, he had told Browne about the orphanage and hospice he had founded, and urged her to visit one day. In December of 2005, Browne took his advice and traveled with her husband and three sons to Kenya, bringing $50,000 worth of donated books, medical supplies and computers along with them. During their stay Browne and her family worked as volunteers and helped to set up a computer lab for the children.

Browne also visited a ceramic bead art studio that D’Agostino had recommended she see while she was there. Impressed by the variety and quality of the beads, Browne made a comment about how they could potentially serve as an excellent fundraising device for Nyumbani.

THE OWNER of the studio challenged Browne to follow through on her suggestion and sent her home to McLean with a supply of beads. She spent the next year mastering the art of using the beads to craft necklaces and earrings, and eventually established Heart of the Village, Inc., a non-profit organization that supports a three-pronged effort toward obtaining wellness, sustainability and education and jobs for children affected by poverty in sub-Saharan Africa. Browne uses funds from her jewelry sales to support the organization — and it was precisely one of these jewelry sets that caught the eye of Nichols on that fateful afternoon in Chico’s.

“It was sheer accident that we both knew Father D’Ag,” said Browne.

Once the women got over the initial shock of their unexpected connection, Nichols asked Browne if she would be interested in having Heart of the Village be the benefactor of Chico’s next “wardrobe party” event.

“Periodically we throw these wardrobe parties where 10 percent of our sales go to a charity,” said Nichols.

On Thursday, July 26, the McLean Chico’s held a wardrobe party for Heart of the Village, Inc., and was able to raise a little over $3,000.

“Our store was number one in our district in terms of the event,” said Nichols.

Browne and Nichols know that D’Agostino — who passed away in Kenya at the age of 80 in November of 2006 — would approve of their united effort to help the children of Nyumbani.

“Tomi came over and we both got teary-eyed just thinking about Father D’Ag working his magic up there in heaven,” said Nichols.