HEBER CITY, Utah — Lillian Martino greets new acquaintances, young or old, with a firm handshake and a broad smile.
It's rare to see such assurance in a teenager who is still months away from her high school graduation. But young Lillian could aptly be called an “old soul.” She's lived a life that seems to stretch far beyond her 18 years.
She was born into poverty in Buduburam, Ghana, in 1996. Her mother died a short time after her birth. She never knew her father. The infant orphan was placed in the home of her uncle.
By her third birthday she was battling malaria and malnutrition. Hunger distended her empty belly. Life held little promise for Lillian.
Then good fortune discovered the child. Her uncle became acquainted with an LDS missionary couple serving in Ghana. The man told the missionary couple about a 3-year-old girl in desperate need of a family.
The missionaries returned to their home in Heber City, Utah, a short time later with Lillian on their mind. They approached their friends Tracy and Lois Martino and asked if they had room in their family for a sickly African child.
The Martinos were already the parents of three boys and had never considered adoption. But their prayers confirmed that Lillian belonged with them. Tracy and Lois flew to West Africa and began the arduous process of international adoption.
“It was the first adoption out of Ghana in a long time and it was difficult,” said Lillian. When the Martinos finally boarded their homebound plane with Lillian in their arms their fellow passengers cheered.
The little African girl settled immediately into her new surroundings in Heber City. Her outgoing nature helped her assimilate to life in the United States and Church activity.
“I remember singing ‘I Am a Child of God’ at my very first sacrament meeting,” she said with a smile.
Lillian learned to ride horses, excelled in track and field and eventually became an elite soccer player. Her classmates at Wasatch High School elected her homecoming queen. But in her heart, she has always remained a child of Ghana. Her thoughts, she said, are never far from her native land and people.
Five years ago, Lillian and her parents made a two-week visit to Ghana. She reunited with grandmothers, cousins and former playmates.
“It was an incredible experience because I was able to learn a lot more about myself and my country,” she told the Church News.
She also discovered the desperate plight awaiting many Ghanaian children, including a few of her childhood friends. Many faced being sold into slavery or other forms of human trafficking. Almost all knew poverty. Few enjoyed educational opportunities.
Despite her young age, Lillian decided she would become an advocate for exploited and at-risk children of Ghana. With the support of her parents, she began working with the US-based nonprofit group, Orphans’ Heroes, and its partner organization in Ghana — the Enslavement Prevention Alliance of West Africa (EPAWA).
Lillian then organized her own non-profit foundation called Friends for Friends with the dual-mission of raising awareness and money for needy children in Ghana. The foundation has since been renamed Fahodie for Friends — a modified nod to the Ghanaian word for friends.
The young organizer has learned the power of thinking globally while acting locally. Two years ago she staged a benefit youth dance in Heber City to raise money for Fahodie for Friends.
“I hired a DJ, rented a facility and then invited everyone in my high school to the dance,” she said.
Lillian’s foundation would use the money collected at the benefit dance to help several young people in Ghana receive medical care, counseling, improved nutrition and money for school.
She followed up that first dance with a second benefit dance last summer. She has also spoken in front of several community groups, educating folks about the realities of slavery and human trafficking in West Africa.
She returned to Ghana last summer to monitor developments in her foundation and to check up on the beneficiaries of her efforts.
“So far, we have been able to rescue 11 victims of modern-day slavery and help them get into boarding schools and supply them with food and clothing,” she said.
Fahodie for Friends has ambitious, long-term goals in Ghana. The foundation hopes to raise enough money to one day build a medical clinic and a safe house for children in need.
A Laurel in the Daniels Ward, Heber City Utah East Stake, Lillian’s many blessings have prompted her to help lift the burdens of others.
Still, the young woman has known her own pain in recent years. Two severe knee injuries temporarily stunted her soccer development. She endured surgeries and months of rehabilitation. And in 2012, her adopted father, Tracy Martino, died unexpectedly at the age of 55.
But the gritty resiliency that once sustained a malnourished 3-year-old remains with Lillian today. Despite her setbacks, she has continued to work hard — advancing her foundation while pursuing her athletic dreams. She was recently awarded a scholarship to play soccer at BYU-Hawaii.
“I still have a lot of things I want to accomplish,” she said.