Act Locally; Think Globally

By Jheri St. James

The Tanzania I journal entry was written at the very beginning of the Common Ground 191 project, by a college girlfriend of Gary Simpson’s daughter, Heather, who has long since moved on in her writing and life story. This version, Tanzania II, is written near the very end of the last collection needed to complete the first stage of the project. There have been “adventures” in these six years: shipping boxes rejected at destination, held up at the USDA, or sent to collectors who got ‘lost;’ volunteers whose interest waned; soil that had to be sent by diplomatic pouch from U.S. Embassy collectors. Most of those kinds of incidents happened offshore, in lands far, far away. We haven’t even figured out how to collect the soil from our own U.S.A. yet—should it be state by state or is there a representative place that speaks for the whole country?

This journal entry, Tanzania II, began right in our hometown of Laguna Beach, California, with an article in the local newspaper, to which Gary responded with a request for soil:

Signing On for a Family Vacation With an Africa Twist

See the (developing) world. Help your fellow man. Indulge your sense of adventure. Get back to the basics. Immerse yourself in an exotic culture.

All of this and more is p romised for family vacationers who signed up for this summer's Africa work team, organized through the Laguna Beach United Methodist Church, and heading to Tanzania on June 22 to build a teachers' residence for a new school, among other things.

The Africa team, comprised of 38 people - mostly Laguna residents, but including others from San Clemente, Dana Point and even the Bay Area, is this year's "annual work team," organized by Laguna resident Kay Ostensen.

Ostensen, who is a counselor at Thurston Middle School and also has a private practice, has been organizing these charitable work teams for the past eight years. And while the trips come under the auspices of the Methodist church, they are open to anyone interested in participating, regardless of religious affiliation.

Each year a work team is organized to carry out a charitable endeavor in the developing world - ideally one that allows team members to interact with the people they are helping, and to put in some sweat equity as well as donating funds for a project. Usually this means finding a project being run by a reputable non-profit and offering to help them. Once the team is formed they meet at least once a month to plan the trip and their fundraising efforts.

Selecting a destination and a project is an organic process. Ostensen says she requires team members to be flexible. As an example, planning for this summer's trip began last August, and their original focus was an orphanage in Kenya.

Due to post election violence in Kenya, the team realized in January it would be prudent to change their destination. "I had to abandon all plans and research," explained Ostensen, who refocused on Tanzania because of a contact provided by her son.

They settled on Indigenous Education Foundation of Tanzania, which strives to increase access to secondary schools. Fewer than fivepercent of indigenous children attend school beyond sixth grade. IEFT is building Orkeeswa Secondary School in the village of Lashaine, where 500 students are enrolled in three government-run primary schools. There are no secondary schools nearby.

The Orkeeswa Secondary School will eventually accommodate 400 seventh to 12th grade students, but the project is incremental. Last year, they completed a pipeline and water tank to ensure safe drinking water for children and staff. The first two classrooms were completed and the school officially opened to the first 41 students on April 14. As more money comes in, additional structures will be added.

Ostensen's team will work on building a housing structure for teachers, in addition to donating about $4,000 towards the purchase of construction materials.

They are under no illusions about their manual contribution. Ostensen says the token amount of work they perform helps to show solidarity and get people motivated. The idea is for the locals to benefit from getting paid work, but the participation of the volunteers helps build up morale. "Something happens when you come to a village," she said.

Various members of the team will also be involved in two other projects while there. A nurse will work a few days at a mobile HIV unit, providing testing and education. Other members will plant trees nearby, participating in Dr. Jane Goodall's Roots & Shoots project to plant trees that combat the mosquito population and reduce the risk of malaria.

Team members are responsible for their own travel and lodging, as well as a recreational safari in Kenya. Even so, team members have organized fundraisers throughout the year to raise money to support their mission. So far, they have raised $8,000, designating half for the school, and the remainder divvied up between the mobile HIV unit, Roots & Shoots, and the orphanage in Kenya that they had originally planned to visit.

Members of the congregation and the community have also been collecting clothing, school and medical supplies to donate to the school children. Laguna Beach resident Gary Jenkins, a pediatrician, offered his pro bono services for pre-trip physicals and vaccinations.

The summer work groups are family oriented. Part of the mission's goal is to expose young people to living conditions elsewhere and to learn the benefit of service to those in need.

The cultural introductions start even before the plane departs. Some members started corresponding as pen pals with the Orkeeswa school's first students.

"I think the mission is going to be incredibly eye-opening, and I am so excited to meet my pen pals Langoi and Isdori," admitted Lauren Thomas, a graduating Laguna Beach High School senior, who, with the rest of her family, will be joining the summer work team for the first time.

Lauren's parents, Kristin and Scott, have long wanted to join the group, especially for the experience it would give their children. Their other daughter, Shannon, a LBHS sophomore, expects the experience will be life changing. "It will be cool to meet other teenagers my age and see what their lives are like," she said.

Scott Thomas and son Nathan, a seventh-grader at Thurston, kicked in another element of philanthropy into the mix. When they learned the kids in Lashaine are soccer fans, they called on AYSO contacts to donate jerseys. The response was huge. Their bags will bulge with enough for nearly five teams. "I'm really looking forward to playing football [soccer] and net ball with the kids there," said Nathan.

"It's always a huge growth experience for everyone on the trip," said Ostensen's daughter, Joy, who, along with her brother Justin, has accompanied her parents on almost every trip. Joy is now a social worker and largely credits her experience on the work teams for her choice of a service career.

Rev. Ginny Wheeler and her husband Jim Jones are on the team, and will be accompanied by their sons Jake and Bill Wheeler for the fourth time. "It's a great way for a family to bond," said Jones.

Something rubbed off. Jake taught school in Ethiopia last summer in rather difficult conditions and Bill worked as a journalist in Beirut.

Team members in Tanzania will stay on cots in a guesthouse, one or two to a room, with a cold shower and shared bathroom at the end of the hall. Some will camp and a couple will stay at a recently opened bed and breakfast. A "bucket shower" with warm water will be a one day luxury at the end of their stay. Four-wheel drive "dala dalas" will speed them to the work site each day.

Ostensen says every trip is "transforming for those of us who are fortunate enough to go. We are welcomed into the villages and huts (or 'bures') of people who have far less than we do, yet give far more of themselves… Something miraculous happens on every trip, from a seemingly dead end moment to something beautiful unfolding."

Past work-team trips have trekked to Costa Rica, Zimbabwe, Fiji (twice), Mexico, Cuba, and Guatemala.

Last Sunday, May 11, two visiting IEFT founders, managing director Peter Luis and Tanzania operations director Grosper Mollel joined members for breakfast. Later, they gave a presentation to the Methodist church congregation and a Sunday school class. Mollel wore his native Masai clothing in honor of the occasion.

"When you hear of all that is needed in our destination country, it really puts our abundant lives in perspective," said Kristin Thomas, who added that "Meeting the two school founders last weekend really made us realize 'it's happening!'

(Reprinted from The Laguna Beach Independent, May 16, 2008, with thanks.)

Candace Marshall wrote: “Twenty two widows in the small village of Usa River, Tanzania, are trying to start business enterprises to support themselves. The Siafu House is one of their first projects. It is a bed and breakfast and several of us stayed there with an armed guard outside and a trickle of cold water for a shower.”

We wish to extend our sincere thanks to all the fine local people who brought back some soil as a memento of their good works in Tanzania, to share with us as we memorialize the one thing all humans have in common: life on earth.

By acting locally, these fine folks make global changes. If every person in every small town in the world adopted this course of action, soon there would be no global problems remaining. Here is a little album of pictures of local Laguna Beach natives with local Tanzania natives.








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