Children in Tembien, Ethiopia.
Children in Tembien, Ethiopia.

Michael Belay Awarded Chapman’s Highest Honor, the Presidential Medal

Michael Belay, right, accepts the Presidential Medal from Chapman University President Jim Doti.

Michael Belay, right, accepts the Presidential Medal from Chapman University President Jim Doti.

Chapman University Public Safety officer Michael Belay has received the highest honor awarded by the University, the Presidential Medal for Distinguished Contributions to Humanity.   Belay embarked more than 15 years ago on a quest to raise funds and obtain supplies to better the lives of people in his hometown of Tembien, Ethiopia, where many children orphaned by the AIDS epidemic and the country’s wars were living in poverty on the streets.  He founded a nonprofit organization, Hands Across the Planet to Poor Youth (H.A.P.P.Y.), to provide ongoing fundraising for the cause.  He sold his family’s Orange County house for about half a million dollars to build a school in Tembien, and more recently refinanced his car in order to buy uniforms and school supplies for the students.

Chapman University and several major benefactors from throughout Orange County contributed, providing the school with computers and the town with ambulances and other amenities.  “Michael Belay is an incredible example of the Chapman spirit and the Schweitzer way,” said President Jim Doti in awarding the honor (referring to Albert Schweitzer, the 20
-century humanitarian icon known as the “guiding spirit” of Chapman).  “He reflects so much honor upon our University.”

Belay is currently working to bring pure water to Tembien.  Many people there obtain their drinking water from the local polluted river, and water-borne diseases are rife, especially among the children.  “A water purification system for the town could cost several million dollars, but knowing Michael, he will find a way,” said Doti.

“Chapman is my home, and you are my family,” Belay said in accepting the medal.  “How could I ever have imagined how wonderful my dream of America would be, how thankful I am to live in the United States of America, and how happy I am to be in the Chapman family, here, alive?  This award symbolizes hope and dreams; I thank you, and God bless America.”

For more information and to help Michael’s H.A.P.P.Y. cause, visit
or the organization’s Facebook page.

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Mary Platt

Mary Platt is director of the Hilbert Museum of California Art at Chapman University


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