MONTREAL - It was one of the most difficult experiences of her life, but Cheryl Walker found her calling after a stint living in the Republic of Congo.

Always drawn to Africa, Walker didn't hesitate when her husband Lambert Laki-Laka, an African man, found a job offer in Pointe-Noire.

They sold their home in Montreal in 2004 and, with their three children, packed their belongings in a cargo container bound for the Central African nation.

Life is was difficult for Walker in the Republic of Congo. She witnessed abject destitution and was threatened by lack of electricity and running water. The family faced sickness from parasites and malaria.

She was haunted by children, alone and homeless, on the streets of the small African country.

Walker felt isolated and alone, and the family soon used their savings to return to a two-bedroom apartment in Montreal, happy to be home, and with a fourth child on the way.

But the Congo pulled on their heartstrings, said Walker.

"I can't just get this out of my mind. I can't just put this in my past and move on with my life," she said.

Six months after their return to Canada, Walker and Laki-Laka founded Mwana Villages, raising funds to build homes for orphans – giving them a new mother, a new family and a new shot at life.

Students will go to school in the morning and learn a trade in the afternoon.

But most importantly, they'll learn to stand on their own two feet, said Laki-Laka.

"Teach them to be people of integrity, because it's one of the values we have lost there," he said.

In 2009, Cheryl raised money to take a research trip to meet officials in both the Republic of Congo and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

On that trip, she met orphans and homeless children facing horrendous struggles – some who didn't even know their own names.

Her heart was captured by a young girl named Grace, who lost both parents to AIDS.

"I just saw these tears running down her face. It broke my heart. So I took her in my arms, and she started to sob," recalled Walker.

A small army of volunteers has been moved by Walker's tale, and by her determination. The group helps keep Mwana Villages alive.

"I've been struck by the clarity of their vision, and their focus. They know exactly what they want to do," said volunteer Ronald Thiessen.

"I tell Cheryl all the time that she amazes me. She's a mother of four, working two jobs, driving a bus and still running this, and making it such a success," said volunteer Laurie MacDonald.

The family plans to make a permanent move to the Republic of Congo next year, knowing it can't save every child, but refusing to break the promises it has made.

"They are waiting for us. It's like a source of hope for them," said Walker.