Growing up in a remote area in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia gave 11-time OAT traveler Susan Rickert an appreciation for village life that has always stayed with her—and that has helped her change the lives of others around the world.
Her desire to help make the world a better place dates to her young adult years. She had moved to Alabama, where she was "very deeply affected by the wrongness of segregation," as she puts it. "It pained my heart so badly."
It also prompted her to become involved with the civil rights movement of Martin Luther King, Jr. In Lynchburg, Virginia, where she was then a primary schoolteacher, Susan participated in a sit-in at a lunch counter. Her boyfriend at the time and an African-American friend they were with were arrested and put in jail for ten days.
Undeterred—or perhaps inspired—Susan joined the Peace Corps during the 1960s, making just one request: to be sent to Tanzania to live in a remote, isolated bush village with the Africans. "I really wanted a full experience of what it was like to live with Africans," she says. "I totally fell in love right from the first day with the Tanzanians."
Giving Back in Tanzania
Flash forward 35 years. Married to a man who shares her vision, Susan is living in San Francisco,
California. Their children have left the nest. And Susan has turned to her husband and said, "Now I have to go back and continue my love affair with Tanzania."
She chose to return with OAT in large part because of the school visit that is integral to the itinerary. Having taught at a primary school during her two years in the Peace Corps, she was eager to see what the primary schools in the bush villages looked like today.
What she saw became what she calls "a pivotal moment that changed my life." When she visited the Bashay Primary School in the Karatu region, she saw a wing of the school that had a dirt floor and no windows, doors, or roof. She was so moved, she collected the money for the new roof on the spot.
She has been collecting money ever since. She has traveled to Tanzania annually with OAT for ten years, and each time, she arrives at the local school with two questions: "What do you need, and how can I help?" Once the project is selected, she pledges to raise the money and return in a year to see how it is progressing. "Most of the time, the work is finished, and I'm able to cut the ribbon," she says. Since that initial OAT trip, she has helped to fund improvements and additions to four primary schools in the town of Karatu. Following up, Susan then collected funds to start a new high school in Karatu, named Banjika. Grand Circle Foundation then joined with other donors to complete the construction of the school. Banjika now has 550 students and 16 classrooms including science and computer labs.
A key partner in her endeavors has been OAT's longtime partner in Africa, Willy Chambulo, owner of Kibo Safaris. Susan confides that "having someone on the ground" in the location "is an essential part of why this works." She is proud of the decade-long partnership she has forged between herself, Willy, OAT, and Grand Circle Foundation.
A New Enterprise in Peru
While remaining actively involved with the Karatu schools, Susan recently shifted her focus to another part of the world. "For three nights, I had a recurring dream that called me to the Amazon, to remote villages that needed help and no one else was helping," she says. "It was a mystical experience."
Booking herself on OAT's Amazon River Cruise & Rain Forest adventure, she started down the Amazon, standing at the bow of her small ship looking for the villages that she would end up helping. "It was a very similar experience to my Tanzania trips, only it was a water safari," she says. "What I found were loving, outgoing people living as they have for years."
The OAT adventure includes a visit to the primary school in the village of Las Palmas, where Susan discovered a need for a first-aid clinic. Within a year, she was cutting the ribbon to first-aid stations in two separate villages. But the need didn't stop there. The clinics needed a shortwave radio for emergency use and solar panels to provide the power for lighting and for refrigerating vaccines. To date, she has raised $2,700 to be used not only for the radio and the solar panels, but also for soccer equipment for the school.
As in Tanzania, Susan found a key local partner in her efforts—her Trip Leader, Johnny Balarezo. Not only does Johnny purchase the necessary materials and transport them to Las Palmas, he also remains there as a volunteer to help with the building project.
An Ongoing Scholarship Project
It might seem as though raising money for construction projects on two sides of the globe and
monitoring their progress would be enough for a professional massage therapist who is also a "very engaged grandmother." Susan, however, is always able to give a little bit more.
In 2010, her attention is focused on the scholarship project she launched eight years ago, before construction of the Banjika Secondary School she helped fund. Until the school was completed, students had to go to boarding school—if they received any education beyond primary school at all. Over the years, Susan has gathered sponsors to send 20 students to boarding school. In addition to providing financial support, Susan writes an encouraging letter to each student three times a year, and during her last trip to Tanzania, all 20 students were celebrated at a barbecue she arranged in their honor.
In all, Susan has raised more than $100,000 in support of schools in Tanzania and Peru. In honor of her own extraordinary accomplishments, Grand Circle Foundation presented "Mama Susan" (as she is known to the children of Karatu) with its first Washburn Award. Named in honor of Honorary Director Bradford Washburn, the award is given to an individual in recognition of a personal commitment to giving back to a community where the company travels.
Inspiring Others to Give Back
Not surprisingly, Susan's energy and passion for changing people's lives for the better has inspired many of her fellow travelers over the years. Among them are Janice Lathen, first-time traveler from New York, New York, who has been instrumental in raising money for solar power and a computer lab at Banjika High School and who even returned on her own to train teachers and students in how to use them.
Another friend, six-time OAT traveler Laurin Hayes of Cayucus, California, has assisted Susan's fundraising efforts. And Susan was instrumental in helping Jan Petring, first-time traveler from San Luis Obispo, California, send book bags for incoming kindergarten children to Bashay Primary School. Every year, Susan hosts a group of around 25 fellow philanthropists at her home to share best practices and ideas.
The fact is, though, that though San Francisco is her home, "I feel at home in the world," Susan says. "Especially in remote villages."