Never Too Young to Change the World
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Never Too Young to Change the World

One remarkable teenager inspires children to help their peers

Kristina Tester portraitAs a child, Kristina Tester dreamed of living in Africa one day. So when her grandmother offered her the chance to join her on Overseas Adventure Travel's Ultimate Africa: Botswana, Namibia & Zimbabwe Safari, along with her parents and twin sister, Kristina jumped at it.

It was a decision—and a trip—that would change her life. She took the trip during the summer after she completed eighth grade, and the itinerary included a stop at the Ngamo Primary School in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, where she mingled with her eighth-grade peers. "They were in the middle of taking their exams for high school," Kristina recalls. "But they were so hospitable, they dropped what they were doing immediately. I was moved by their motivation, passion, and intellect, especially in that learning environment."

Kristina in AfricaThat learning environment encompassed a school building in bad repair, with no electricity or running water. More touching to Kristina, however was the lack of opportunity for higher education. She learned from the school principal that, while 98% of the students were expected to pass the exams they were taking, only 2% would be able to continue on to high school. "That was a staggering statistic to me," she says. "Especially since I've never had to think about receiving an education. It made me realize what an incredible gift an education is."

Upon her return home, Kristina, then 14 years old, immediately set about providing that gift for the students at the Ngamo School. She wrote letters, she spoke at churches, she enlisted the Rotary Club in her hometown of Minneapolis, Minnesota … and within six months, she had raised $10,000 toward a scholarship account. Today, four years later, that total has risen to $25,000.

She didn't stop there, however. Last year, Grand Circle Foundation Vice President Maury Peterson was traveling through Africa when she learned of a Zimbabwe school in even greater need of assistance: the Ziga School. "The difference between the two schools is night and day," says Maury. "Ngamo looks fantastic now, but we are starting from scratch with Ziga. The buildings are falling down, and there are no books or supplies. Fortunately, there's a passionate headmaster at both schools."

Kristina Tester fundraiserThere's also a passionate fundraiser: Kristina Tester. To formalize her efforts, Kristina recently incorporated a nonprofit organization called So Others May Learn. The focus of the organization is providing scholarships and creating schools in sub-Saharan Africa, an area greatly in need of help. She points out that "fundraising is the hardest part of being a nonprofit." So, to help the Ziga School, she came up with a novel idea: having kids in her Minnesota community be the donors.

Naming the endeavor Raise the Roof, Kristina approached a local elementary school and made a PowerPoint presentation to the third- and fourth-graders, showing them the difficulties endured by their peers at Ziga. Having captured their attention—and their hearts—Kristina then told the students that they couldn't ask their parents for money. They had to earn it themselves.

"There was an incredible response," she reports. The children cleaned closets and washed dishes, did yardwork, vacuumed, ran errands, until their parents began running out of ideas for chores for them to do. Children in the neighborhood who heard her story similarly ran home to collect their spare change to throw into the pot. Donations poured in, 50 and 75 cents at a time—until $5,000 was raised to put a new roof on the school.

Strides"A lot of people overlook us," she said, speaking as a woman not far from childhood herself. "They don't realize the level of commitment kids are capable of. But these kids are some of the most amazing, inspiring people."

Currently, Kristina has two new projects in the works. She has recently launched a Spring into Action scholarship campaign, and she is also organizing Strides for Schools, a 5K run/walk awareness- and fund-raising campaign. "We chose 5K because that's the distance most students in Africa walk to school on an empty stomach," she says. The event will have information booths, music, and other activities to enlighten her Minnesota neighbors about the situation in African schools and to inspire them to get involved. Kristina hopes the fundraiser will become an annual event.

It's all part of a goal she has to motivate others to become engaged. "When you see a problem, like the devastation in Haiti, the easiest thing to do is turn off the TV and get back to your activities. My hope is that people will say, 'There is something I can do.' One person can make an incredible difference."

Prudential awardKristina is one person who has already made an incredible difference, and she has numerous awards to show it—including Minnesota's "Kids Who Care" award and the prestigious Prudential Spirit of Community award. But she quickly deflects the credit to her community. "This wouldn't have happened without them," she says.

Grand Circle Foundation has also been instrumental in all of her fundraising efforts, according to Kristina, and she remains in close contact with both Foundation staff and partners on the ground in Africa, including Maury Peterson, VP of the Grand Circle Foundation, and Maureen Vincent of Wilderness Safaris, one of OAT's top vendors. "Grand Circle Foundation has been phenomenal," Kristina says. "They make all this possible. I feel that I wouldn't have had any footing in Zimbabwe without them." In addition to selecting students to receive scholarships, the Foundation also facilitates contact with African partners, and reports on progress. "Just saying, 'whatever you need, we will help you' is phenomenal," says Kristina. "At first, I wasn't sure I'd be able to help, but Grand Circle Foundation inspired me and helped me."

When asked how she is able to maintain her focus on helping the children of Zimbabwe, especially at such a young age, Kristina's answer is simple. "There's no way you can turn your back on it once you've seen it," she says. "Once you see how much you have that others don't, you have to do something about it."

Today, Kristina is 18 and poised to enter Harvard University, where she plans to major in Global Health. She still hopes to live in Africa one day. In the meantime, this extraordinary young woman is busy making the world a better place for Africa's children.