Lighting Up the Lives of Schoolchildren in Africa
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Lighting Up the Lives of Schoolchildren in Africa

OAT traveler Marie Talian provides solar lights and more for Tanzanian students

When Marie Talian of New York City was a just child, she visited the World's Fair in the Flushing Meadows neighborhood of Queens. Her family outing included a visit to an African exhibit, where, in her words, "I was mesmerized by the beauty of the people, the dancing, and the drumbeat." She determined right then and there that she would someday travel to Africa, so she could experience the culture firsthand.

Though she traveled the world in the meantime, that dream was not realized until August 2010, when she and her friend and traveling companion, Mary Pat Fortier of New Rochelle, New York, embarked on Overseas Adventure Travel's Safari Serengeti: Tanzania Lodge & Tented Safari.

"I had no expectations other than to see animals in a magnificent setting," Marie recalls. "Without a doubt, my safari adventure was so much more than an exotic vacation in search of the 'big five.' While the adrenaline rush of viewing these spectacular creatures in their natural habitat was exciting, more rewarding and enlightening was the learning and discovery of the country and its people. I had no idea how touched I would be. It's the most heartwarming place I've ever been."

The experience left her eager to help. She asked her Trip Leader, Ridas Michael Laizer, what she could do. "Go home and be a good ambassador for the country I love," is what he said.

He also put her in touch with Mark and Naomi Hughes of Hamilton, Virginia, whose Pets Providing Pedals program, inspired by a similar OAT adventure, provides hundreds of bicycles to Tanzanian schools each year as transportation for students and teachers.

Marie and Mary Pat became enthusiastic supporters of Pets Providing Pedals—and in May 2011, they flew to Tanzania specifically to attend the ceremony when that year's donated bicycles were presented.

It was during that whirlwind visit that Marie met Sandra Vaughan, East Africa Operations Coordinator in Grand Circle's regional office in Arusha, Tanzania, and "on-the-ground" programs facilitator. "A brief meeting turned into a fast friendship, and we've kept in close contact ever since," Marie reveals. After finalizing arrangements to return to Tanzania in December, Marie contacted Sandra and told her, "When I visit in December, I would love to meet you for dinner."

Marie had chosen December 2011 for her second Safari Serengeti adventure because she wanted to experience Tanzania during the wet season. Because she had visited sub-Saharan Africa during the dry season, she had missed the Great Migration of Kenya and Tanzania, when a spectacular throng of around 200,000 zebra, 500,000 gazelle, and the star of the show—some 1.5 million wildebeest—thunder across the plains. Although her work schedule wouldn't permit her to travel at the height of this thrilling annual event, she would at least be able to catch the beginning of the great influx of animals.

Again, however, it was not the wildlife but rather the people of Tanzania who captivated her. On the first day of her return, she met with Sandra and was invited to pay a visit to Grand Circle Foundation's newest partner in Tanzania, the Tarangire Primary School. There, she was introduced to a Maasai chief, Chief Lobulo, and the school's Head Principal, Stanley Mindeau.

"They had a list of things they needed to improve the school," Marie recalls. She noticed that one of the items on the list was solar panels and learned that many students couldn't put in extra hours of study because they didn't have access to electricity. "I had cash on me and made the donation then and there," Marie declares.

As it turned out, the solar panels are even more help than she realized. Not only will Grade 7 students be able to put in the extra studying needed in order to prepare for the final exams that will allow them to continue on to secondary school, these portable units can also help families reduce expenses by charging cell phones for free instead of having to use kerosene lamps. "That thrilled me to death," Marie says.

It was not the first time Marie has worked to improve a school in Tanzania. On a visit to Bashay Primary School during their return to Tanzania in May, Marie and Mary Pat learned from the school's Principal, Justine Basso, that his dream was to build a kitchen so that the children could be fed at school. "Just as the Hughes and OAT saw a need for the kids to have transportation to school, feeding them keeps them there, as well," Marie points out. She and Mary Pat spearheaded a drive that raised over $13,000 for a dining hall for the students. Groundbreaking on that project is imminent.

And Marie's efforts on behalf of the Tanzanian people did not stop there. Her dream is one day to live in Tanzania as a volunteer, and she has already begun researching worthy organizations in the Arusha area. She learned of the Good Hope Orphanage and School, which gives street children the essentials for survival, an education—and a chance to succeed that otherwise might have passed them by. She organized a clothing drive among friends and business contacts, resulting in nearly 200 pounds of clothing that she carried across the ocean with her in December.

"I've always had this seed in me," she says. "And on my first trip to Tanzania, it blossomed. I never knew I'd experience this, but it's what I want to do. Tanzania is my second home. I'm enamored by the people. In the U.S., we have so much, yet we walk around unhappy all the time. Many of the Tanzanian people have little in the way of life's bare essentials, yet they are the happiest, warmest people and are grateful every day for the blessings that they do have."

There's no question that the people of Tanzania are blessed by the passionate support of Marie Talian and Mary Pat Fortier. As ambassadors for his country, Ridas Laizer certainly got much more than he asked for in them.

Featured in our January 2012 E-Newsletter. Read the full issue here.