By Catherine Duncan
Ethiopian adoption leads Sonja Simmons to establish school, change lives
Sonja Simmons (B.A. ’96) credits two Texas State University professors for capturing her imagination about political science and opening her eyes to the global world.
Those professors — Drs. Ken Grasso and Patricia Parent — inspired the teenage Simmons, who came from modest means and had never traveled. Neither professor would have guessed that by sparking one student’s interest in the bigger world, the lives of thousands of children in a developing nation would be forever changed. They helped launch her on a fascinating journey that continues today.
After earning her political science degree, Simmons worked for the Texas Legislature before moving to Washington, D.C., where she worked on Capitol Hill for 18 years. Today, she lives in Austin with her son, Davis, who was adopted from Ethiopia in 2008.
“I always knew I was going to build my family through adoption. Ethiopia is a gorgeous country with gorgeous people,” she says. “I felt so connected to the children there. They are all our children. I feel we all have a global responsibility.”
During the adoption process, Simmons saw firsthand the profound need by Ethiopian orphans for access to education. “At first, we just started out with the plan to create a library in Davis’ orphanage. We thought having books would be educational and entertaining.”
However, when Simmons returned in 2009, the previously empty room was housing more children. There was no room for a library. “We decided to distribute the books to all the orphanages. Then, we learned about an agency that had agreed to build a school but abandoned the project and the 98 kindergartners who had already signed up for school. The crude, three-room structure had dirt floors, no windows, and no electricity,” she says.
“They are all our children. I feel we all have a global responsibility.”
With friend Haleigh Haggerton Almquist, Simmons toured the site and together they decided to attempt to build on what little foundation there was to serve the 5- to 7-year-olds. They co-founded the Davis Moon Project School, which 10 years later now serves 2,000 students, ages 3 to 16 years. The nonprofit organization is 100% volunteer operated, and all donations go to the children.
Simmons serves as president, and Almquist acts as executive director. The board of directors also includes Simmons’ college roommate, Anne Searcy-Edmund (B.S. ’93, M.A. ’04), whose degree in elementary education and graduate degree in counseling are invaluable in mission planning. Texas State marketing writer Rodney Crouther is a board member and also adopted a child from Ethiopia. Holden Haggerton (B.S. ’12), a Texas State geography graduate, is a volunteer who has traveled to Ethiopia to help with the project.
“We are proud that enrollment is almost equal: 49% boys and 51% girls. In public school there, 75% of students are male.”
“Individuals from Texas State are making a difference in children’s lives. I believe my experience at the university helped set me on this path,” Simmons says. “Being aware of the local politics in any community is imperative to pulling off a project on this scale. The skills I learned there earning my political science degree and during my career certainly make this all possible.”
The Davis Moon Project came along at an ideal time in Ethiopia, she explains. Education was becoming a priority for children, with girls in particular. “It is an amazing time to be in Ethiopia. We are proud that enrollment is almost equal: 49% boys and 51% girls. In public school there, 75% of students are male. Everyone has equal access to water, our meal program, and our facilities,” she says.
Simmons, who works as the registrar at Austin High School, says it is imperative that Davis, 13, sees that philanthropy is part of their family’s daily life. “Davis knows this is my project because it really spoke to me. One day he will find a way to give back that is meaningful to him. Charity isn’t a casual affair in our house.” ✪
For more information about this project, visit davismoonproject.org