BRADENTON -- When he was 6 years old, Dr. Charles Mulli was abandoned by his parents. His mother and alcoholic father took his two younger brothers, leaving their first born to become a street child in Kenya.
"I felt neglected, of course, by the society, by my parents also, who brought me to this world," the 66-year-old said, his voice soft and thoughtful. "I felt so bad that, even at the age of 16 years old, I felt like really giving up and wanted to take away my own life -- to commit suicide."
Mulli said he met someone who took him to a church where other young people like him were gathered in worship and dance.
"God changed my life," he said.
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Mulli would eventually climb out of poverty and become a wealthy man with a real estate and security company and other business endeavors. Since
1989, he's also helped other street children in Kenya as co-founder and CEO of Mully Children's Family, a nonprofit Christian organization he began with his wife, 62-year-old Esther Mulli.
According to MCF's website, its mission is to rescue, rehabilitate, protect and care for less fortunate and vulnerable children. The organization also has several sustainability projects to boost its income and a vocational training center to help girls learn different trades.
The man known as "Father to the Fatherless" shared his inspirational story during recent visits to Manatee and Sarasota counties. One stop was an April 30 tour of IMG Academy in Bradenton and a talk with students at the school's J316 Chapel.
MCF Florida ambassador Dixey Behnken stood in front of students and some parents before Mulli was introduced. The Sarasota resident and retired U.S. Army chaplain said he heard about Mulli through his son, who is working on a documentary film about the philanthropist. He then read "Father to the Fatherless: The Charles Mulli Story," a book by author Paul H. Boge. Behnken said he devoured the book in three days.
"Midway through the book, something started happening inside me," Behnken said. "I thought I was retired and God was saying: 'You're going to be rehired to work for the Lord, for the mission for Charles Mulli.'"
Behnken bought a round-trip ticket to Kenya and spent two weeks there.
"God can do magnificent things you'd never dreamed," he said. "Believe in Him."
When it was Mulli's turn to speak, the corner of his eyes crinkled behind his glasses as he smiled at the students. He told them he was happy to be here and thanked the various people who helped organize the talk.
The mood quickly changed when the philanthropist began to share the beginning of his personal story.
"I faced a lot of problems -- there was no food, no place to sleep. ... no money to go to school," he told the students.
After surviving by begging in the streets for years, Mulli said he decided to take away his life.
"I hated myself," he said.
That's when Mulli said the young man invited him to a church. Mulli said he recalled the pastor's message clearly.
"That was about the forgiveness of our sin," Mulli said.
He described the pastor's words as a meaningful message to him. Before that, Mulli said he had once wished to find his father and beat him to feel some sort of satisfaction. He said he had felt hatred in his heart.
Later, Mulli said he forgave his parents for abandoning him.
The philanthropist also led students on his long path to working with children in Kenya. Mulli asked his wife, who sat in the back, to wave.
"She's a mother of eight biological children and grandmother of eight kids and has been a mother to more than 2,500 children," he said proudly, adding she's also been his partner.
To date, Mulli estimates he and his wife have helped feed, house and educate 10,000 children over the years through MCF, which also helps other groups, including child laborers, children with physical disabilities and widows living in rural Africa.
"I'm happy to see these children come in when they don't have anything -- they're hopeless," Esther Mulli said. "We can bring them up. We can give them love. We can give them education. We can give them skills."
She said she's also happy because these children will get a university education and later build their own homes and start their own families.
Several children have returned to work for MCF, according to Charles Mulli.
"The main aim of all this is to make these young people grow (into) responsible, young people. ... become self-reliant in the future and continue to help other people," he said.
Amaris Castillo, law enforcement/island reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7051. Follow her on Twitter @AmarisCastillo.