Susan Rickert
Home | Gutsy Leaders | Generous Travelers | Susan Rickert
Susan Rickert

Transforming Lives from Tanzania to San Francisco
One woman's vision to build a village school grows … and changes lives close to home

"It turns me on to be a catalyst for transforming people's lives," Susan Rickert beams.

It would be impossible to count exactly how many lives Susan has touched since April 2005, when the brand-new Banjika Secondary School – funded by money she raised in partnership with Grand Circle Foundation – opened in the village of Karatu, Tanzania. When the school's very first morning bell rang six years ago, 80 students were enrolled. Today, 577 attend.

But this is not the story of Banjika's inception, inspiring as it is. This is the story of what has happened since the school opened it doors – and how Susan has infused her passion for a small African village into the vineyard-dotted community of Sonoma, California, and the streets of San Francisco.

Sharing the Spirit of Giving Back

Last September, Susan received an invitation from the organization Big Ideas and Rich Conversations with Women to speak at a monthly roundtable. Fifty or so women sat rapt with attention as she delivered a speech for the group's "Awakening Your Legacy" program in which Susan told the Banjika story. It was the first time most of the women had heard of the village of Karatu, and the first they learned that – before Banjika – the village kids had nowhere to go after Grade 7, short of a boarding school that most families could not afford. There was no equivalent to what Americans know as "high school," and Susan had been determined to change that. So she traveled to Karatu annually to meet with school officials and she partnered with the Foundation to monitor and complete Banjika's construction.

As her passionate speech came to a close, she received a standing ovation. Caught up in the moment, Susan spontaneously invited them all to come to Tanzania and visit Karatu for themselves. "A trip was born on the spot," she says. And this past March, 14 of them joined Susan on OAT's Safari Serengeti trip. Why March? "Our trip wasn't all about the school," she confesses. "We also wanted to see the height of the Serengeti migration!"

Susan's travel companions were not new to supporting worthwhile causes. Their very involvement with Big Ideas and Rich Conversations with Women grew from their desire to help change the world. Many of them, however, had no idea their altruism was about to affect a community on the other side of the world. "All the women," Susan says, "were so open-hearted and responsive to the village's culture and its needs."

This was Susan's 13th OAT adventure to Tanzania, and during every visit she asks the school principal, Mr. Justin Joseph, what his most urgent need is. This time, as she and her travel mates toured the school's kitchen, they suspected they knew what his answer would be – because the students' lunches were being prepared over a simple wood-fed fire on the floor. "It was a dangerous situation," she says, "because of both the open flame and the noxious smoke." So upon returning home, Susan and one of her traveling companions alerted the Foundation of a $4000 donation to equip the kitchen with smokeless cookers.

And the women's generosity didn't end there. In fact, you could say that their passion for Banjika was contagious. Upon hearing of their trip, a 15-year-old girl from Sonoma raised $200 to buy team uniforms for Banjika's netball league, a sport similar to basketball. This season, Banjika won their district championship. Susan and her fellow travelers are convinced that the uniforms gave the kids a sense of team spirit they had never experienced – and inspired them to play their best.

The uniforms were just one example of how Susan and her group of 14 are staying involved. Chalon Bridges, co-founder of Big Ideas and Rich Conversations with Women, is also a publisher at Addison-Wesley's San Francisco office. When she returned from Tanzania, she knocked on her CEO's door to suggest they ship textbooks to Banjika. Without hesitation, the books were packed and shipped. Yet another traveler plans to return to Banjika soon to volunteer her time as a teacher for four months. "It's really exciting for me to see how each individual woman is integrating what they saw and felt into their own world," Susan says.

Full Circle: Sending Her Own Children's High School to Tanzania

Susan knows a lot about integrating Banjika into her own life. In fact, she recently returned to San Francisco's Lick Wilmerding High School, where her own kids went to school. The private school's curriculum has always focused on the heart, head, and hands and carries a heavy volunteer component. So it seemed the perfect place to propose a three-year plan that will send up to 14 kids and 2 teachers each year to Banjika.

The first group of very excited high school students departs this July, and OAT Trip Leader Tim Mdinka has been working with Susan – and with underwriter World Leadership School in Denver – to arrange all the details. Once in Karatu, the kids and teachers will volunteer their time for two weeks to better Banjika's buildings, classrooms, and grounds. More so, it's an opportunity to open the worlds of young people – both American and Tanzanian kids – and help them forge connections and share ideas long after their trip. Banjika's computer lab – donated by another OAT traveler, Janice Lathen of New York City –will help the kids and faculty stay in touch. "The idea is to have continuous communication throughout the year," she says.

Susan Rickert's Big Idea of building a secondary school in Karatu has grown into an enormous one: cultural exchange that leads to enduring change. Her vision and her legacy now span the globe – and are sure to transform lives for generations. We look forward to her next project!

Featured in our May 2011 E-Newsletter. Read the full issue here.