Three words — perseverance, focus and determination — handwritten on a dry erase board in Given Kachepa’s bedroom at his foster parents’ Colleyville, Texas, home characterize his successful transformation from victim to dentist.

The future did not always look promising for Kachepa, who received his Doctor of Dental Surgery degree from Texas A&M University Baylor College of Dentistry in Dallas on May 27. He was born in Zambia and orphaned when his parents died — his mother when he was 6 years old and his father when he was 8. Kachepa was taken in by a relative, but resources were limited, and they lived in a two-room mud brick house.

What was supposed to be an opportunity for a better life in America came when Keith Grimes, operating as a missionary, visited Kalingalinga, an impoverished town in Zambia. After hearing the angelic voices of Kachepa and other boys in town, Grimes organized the Zambian Acappella Boys Choir. He created five choirs with several boys in each, and brought them to the U.S. to perform for audiences around the country. The original group arrived in the U.S. in 1993. Kachepa, who was in the fourth choir from Kalingalinga, came to the U.S. in 1998. At age 11, he was the youngest in the group.

Grimes, also the founder of the charity Teach Teachers to Teach: Partners in Education, promised that the money raised from the boys’ singing performances would be used to support their families back home, build schools in Zambia and give the boys an American education.

Instead of receiving an education or getting money to send home, the boys were kept as slaves in a mobile home and forced to endure a grueling performance schedule — singing in churches, schools, shopping malls and other public venues — with little to no food or sleep and no health care when they fell ill. When they weren’t performing, they were forced to dig a swimming pool for their captor. The boys, who spoke no English when they arrived in Texas, had nowhere to turn for help.

Even after Grimes’ death in 1999, hope for freedom eluded the boys as Grimes’ family members took over the charity and continued to keep the boys in captivity.

The boys were eventually rescued after federal investigators became suspicious of the charity. Kachepa was placed with foster parents, Sandy and Deetz Shepherd. He was finally able to contact his family in Zambia and go back for a visit, but most importantly, he was able to get the American education he was promised many years before.

Kachepa talks about his journey from orphan to human trafficking victim to dentist, what kept him going and why returning home is so important.

Please share a little bit about your future plans. How do you intend to utilize your dental degree?

My future plans are to return to my home country of Zambia and help people with their dental needs. In my compound there has never been a single dentist. What a change it would be if I were able to bring something new to a community that so desperately needs it. It will be difficult work, but just like anything that’s ever been built in this world, it has to start somewhere. That’s my goal. It’s important to me to return home because that’s where my heart lies. That’s where I was born, and I have a big family that desperately needs my help. I have also seen suffering firsthand in Zambia.

A different person enduring your life’s journey might have let the experiences affect them negatively. To what do you attribute your resolve not only to keep going but to pursue a career as a dental professional?

The thing that keeps me going is my faith in God. If it wasn’t for him I wouldn’t have gotten this far, and he wouldn’t have brought me this far only to let me fail at the end. God has carried me through thick and thin, and he continues to be my guiding rod. He carried me when my parents passed in Zambia. He carried me when I went through a horrible trafficking situation, and that’s why I plan to keep going in my endeavor of returning to Zambia to help the disadvantaged people.

I put three inspiring words on my white board in my room in high school. Those words were still there as a reminder when dental school was difficult.

I wore braces in high school, and when they were removed, I loved my smile. It boosted my self-esteem, and I would love to give others a beautiful smile.

What people or programs at TAMBCD have been especially important to your dental school experience?

The post-baccalaureate program helped me get into dental school. Having someone with a disadvantaged background like myself get into dental school would be a difficult task, but the post-baccalaureate program believes in students that show promise.

Do you have a learning experience with at Texas A&M Baylor College of Dentistry that you will carry with you into your profession?

I tend to look at my whole time I was at TAMBCD as a learning experience. That was learning from some of the best professors and students, and that is learning how to manage your schedule, learning professionalism, time management, and different skills.  I still have a long way to go, but it’s something I’m striving towards. I also liked my interactions with patients, because each case taught you something new you didn’t know before. That’s why I think it’s important to take things one day at a time and just keep improving in everything you are doing. Furthermore, I like the fact that you interact with people from different cultural backgrounds at TAMBCD. It kind of forces you to get out of your comfort zone and interact with all kinds of people. Last but not least, I have learned from my time being at TAMBCD that no matter how much you know, you can always learn more.

What are your immediate plans since graduating from TAMBCD and when do you plan to return to Zambia to open a dental practice?

My immediate plans are to find a job here in the Dallas-Ft.Worth area. Then I want to work for three or four years, payoff my student loans while also hopefully saving money to buy a place in my compound of Kalingalinga and renovate it into a dental practice. It would be a practice that probably only carries out extractions and deep cleanings. There are no dental labs in Zambia, so to be able to make crowns, dentures, or doing fillings or root canals would be challenge initially because of the equipment and skill needed to do those things. But extractions and deep cleanings, I’m sure can be done right away as long as you have the right people working for you. Now this a huge endeavor and I know it won’t be easy, but nothing in life is ever easy, the possibility of failure cannot keep me from trying something I’m passionate about. I will take things one day at a time  and see where the Lord will lead.

Reflecting on your journey to this point, what thoughts come to mind?

As I look back, I’m thankful that I have had a lot of people help me get to this point in my life. Growing up without parents meant someone had to take a chance and take the responsibility of caring for someone else’s child. Those people have been my aunt, Margaret Bimbe, in Zambia and the Shepherd family in the U.S. My aunt in Zambia took me in shortly after I had lost my parents, and even though life was difficult, she showed me and my siblings the love and care we needed at the time. In the United States the Shepherd family came to my rescue after I was removed from a horrible experience of being a victim of human trafficking. They have provided the love and care I desperately needed and continue to need. Because of the trafficking situation, I have had the opportunity to speak about my experience on behalf of trafficking victims in many places, so their voices can be heard and they also can reclaim their lives. I hope to continue my work in that regard, and thankfully God has brought me this far and continues to carry me every single day of my life.

— LaDawn Brock