Mary Ellen Cartetr, founder of the nonprofit Direct Connections to Africa, prepares boxes of school supplies to send to Malawi from her Laguna Beach home. (Don Leach, Coastline Pilot / January 7, 2014)

Mary Ellen Carter's connection to the African nation of Malawi started with a visit in 2006 and a few boxes of supplies.

Today, she is the founder of Direct Connections to Africa with a record of having built two educational centers, three preschools and an Internet cafe and sponsored more than 300 students.

And those are just a few of her accomplishments.

"It was not a thing I ever thought I would be doing," Carter said, adding that the nonprofit founded in 2008 just "kind of evolved."

The Laguna Beach resident visited the country with her husband, U.S. District Judge David Carter, who went to teach Malawian judges how to stop money laundering.

As her husband worked, Carter drove to rural villages and handed out school supplies and over-the-counter medication. That's when she made a connection that blossomed into the nonprofit.

"I was just captivated by a woman's story," Carter said. "She wanted to start a preschool."

Carter started sending boxes of school supplies to the teacher.

Now with educational facilties constructed and 35 teachers trained, Carter's plans have expanded.

Her goal, in line with the organization's namesake, is to make improvements by directly connecting with the villages in the Mangochi district of Malawi.

"It's kind of like a project," she said. "Can you get a village to be self-sufficient when you directly connect in with them?"

So far, Carter says the answer is yes.

Carter runs the organization from her house with the help of volunteers in order to keep costs low. About 5% of donations go toward those costs, with the remaining 95% going to Africa, she says.

The nonprofit is a testament to the notion that it does not take a giant organization or tons of money to make a difference, she said.

Direct Connections not only works to build infrastructure but provides financial support to high school and college students. Donors pay the students' $300-a-year school costs and, in turn, receive letters and updates from the youths.

"We want them to be self-sufficient," Carter said. "So that's why they have to give back, and the way they give back is to write letters."

The connection between the students and their sponsors is to ensure that donors can "see exactly where (their) money is going."

With more than 300 high school and 30 college students sponsored over the past five years, Carter said she is pleased with the progress.

Traci Kaas of Huntington Beach has been donating to Direct Connections since 2010. She supports a female and male student, Chisomo and Japhet, and her husband supports two others.

Kaas and her husband not only sponsor the cost of schooling but send supplies and additional funds throughout the year. And in turn, they receive letters from the students, which they respond to with letters of their own describing life in the United States.