Just hours from the Serengeti National Park, more than 9,000 miles from Provo, several BYU students are spending their summer in the shadow of Mount Kilimanjaro.
It’s not an exotic study abroad, and they aren’t there to test their physical boundaries on Africa’s tallest mountain. Rather, they are volunteers and interns with Provo-based organization HELP International. They are in Tanzania to work with local organizations to improve education, public health and entrepreneurial opportunities for locals.
Building durable pens to house a pig farming venture, constructing enclosed brick stoves to prevent respiratory issues from open-fire cooking and educating isolated villagers about safe sexual practices and AIDS prevention — all while being culturally sensitive — is all in a day’s work for HELP participants.
The team, 25-members strong over the course of spring and summer, is under the direction of BYU public health major Tyler Nelson and his wife America. While BYU students are well represented among the participants, team members come from throughout North America.
At the moment, several of them are working toward completing construction on a building for the Green Eden Nursery School, which provides subsidized education for 60 students who would be otherwise unable to afford it.
“This project is very important to me because education is a great sustainable project and because the children in this nursery don’t have any other options to go to school,” said project lead Tanya Hisch, an 18-year-old high school graduate from Cranbrook, Canada.
The school currently operates in one room rented to them by the Moravian church, where younger and older children are separated by only a few feet, and taught different lessons simultaneously. The distracting atmosphere is compounded by the church’s insistence that the walls not be decorated with learning materials.
According to a fact sheet provided by HELP, Green Eden has few sources of revenue and is quickly depleting its fundraised money on rent. As a result, it cannot pay its teachers a full salary, resulting in frequent changes in staffing. To make matters worse, the privilege of using the church building expires in December of this year.
Fortunately, the organization owns a plot of land. School director Emmanuel Irafay used his own savings to build the foundation and walls for a new school building there, explained Hisch, but he was unable to finish the project on his own.
“[He] puts so much hard work into this school,” Hisch said. “He really shows that he’s passionate about it.”
Now Hisch and the other volunteers are looking to friends and associates back home to help generate the funds required to complete construction. Even though Tanzania is on the other side of the world, the project has global significance, Hisch said.
“It is a great reminder about how important education is and how often we take it for granted,” she said. “Students here will walk hours to get any sort of education.”
Asking for donations as little as $1, the group is using the Tipping Bucket, an online fundraising platform that gained traction after winning the Marriott School’s Social Venture competition.
The Bucket approach allows approved projects to take advantage of social media and networking to raise funds for “sustainable social causes.” If the goal is met by the specified deadline, the project gets funded. If not, would-be donors are refunded.
More than $1,000 has been raised for the project thus far, through small donations from supporters like Rachael Felix.
“I gave because I believe every child should be given the opportunity to be a child and because knowledge is power,” Felix wrote on the Tipping Bucket home page.
However, that total represents only about a third of the donations the Green Eden project needs to reach to its $3,500 tipping point, and time is running out.
HELP’s Tanzania team has until 9 a.m. on Saturday to meet its goal.
Feeling the crunch, Hisch implores the BYU community to add their own little drop to the bucket.
“Donations will not only help to get this school finished so the students have a place to learn but will also lay a great foundation for Green Eden to work off in the future,” Hisch explained. “With the money Emmanuel plans to save from rent, he has ideas for income-generating projects that will give the school great potential to better sustain itself.”
Two and a half months on the plateau continent has kindled a growing interest in Hisch, who plans to spend next summer fighting forest fires in British Columbia.
“This trip has inspired me quite a bit and makes me think about going into international development,” Hisch said. “This kind of work is hard, but it’s rewarding, and I love it.”
The exposure has been equally stimulating for Hisch’s teammate Josh Doying, a BYU senior from Darien, Conn., studying public health.
“The experience has been awesome in allowing us to react to needs that we perceive and base projects on those needs,” Doying said. “It has been extremely educational on how to problem solve and develop solutions.”
There are, of course, some challenges to working within such a tight time frame, Doying said.
“We have so little time that it is tough to evaluate and adapt projects to real needs,” he said.
Doying, who chose Tanzania after completing a domestic internship for another organization that works in the Eastern African country, has particularly enjoyed being involved with creating a business plan to increase computer literacy skills among villagers by offering incentives to local businesses.
Fellow participant Seth Gwartney of Fredericksburg, Va., just graduated from BYU with a degree in information systems, and he is putting his skills to work teaching computer classes at a vocational school in Boma Ng’ombe.
“I feel really good about teaching this very useful skill to a very needy population,” Gwartney wrote in a recent blog post on the HELP International website. “Expanding one’s education and experience by learning to use a computer, in my opinion, can do more to open doors than almost any other single skill.”
As someone who has grown up using computers, Gwartney was surprised by how challenging it was to share those skills with the community members.
“It was harder teaching about computers to students who have absolutely no background,” he said. “But after getting through the basics and into more practical skills, such as using word processors, things are going pretty smoothly.”
Gwartney and the others have also had to adapt to the reality of living in a developing country.
“There are 16 of us living in the house and the electricity is on only about half of the time when we’re home,” Gwartney said, adding that while the house is incredible, they don’t have any hot water.
“Sometimes we don’t have any water whatsoever. Those days when we don’t have electricity or water can be pretty miserable,” he said.
Even so, it’s been a positive experience, especially considering it’s HELP’s first venture into Tanzania. The organization was started by BYU students and faculty more than a decade ago in the aftermath of Hurricane Mitch, and has since expanded to include nine locations in eight developing countries.
In the last few years the organization’s volunteer power has grown exponentially, from 101 in 2009 to 151 last year. This year, HELP sent a total of 216 volunteers, a full third of whom are BYU students.