Naomi & Mark Hughes
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Naomi & Mark Hughes

4-time OAT travelers & founders of Pets Providing Pedals

In this era of iPods and computer games, the gift of a bicycle may not be as meaningful to an American child as it was once. But to a child in Africa, it can be life-changing. There, children have responsibilities to their families far beyond what most American families can imagine. A Tanzanian child likely has chores that must be done before a long walk to school, with still more chores awaiting afterward that are critical to the family's very survival. Many of these children never even progress beyond primary school because education takes too much time away from the family. "When you drive around, you can see how a bicycle could make life so much easier—not just for the children, but for women carrying water, and the whole family," says Naomi Hughes of Hamilton, Virginia. "It's amazing how something so inexpensive could impact their lives."

Naomi witnessed the need for bicycles firsthand when she and her husband Mark Hughes visited Tanzania for the first time with OAT. And they were inspired to do something about it. "We knew that bicycles would give these children the mobility they need to get to secondary school," says Mark.

A professional dog groomer, Naomi began using her business, Omistar, to solicit funds for bicycles and also donated 100% of her own tips toward the cause. When the couple sent an email to Grand Circle Foundation asking for assistance with logistics, they received an enthusiastic response, and Pets Providing Pedals was born.

Rolling Out a Second Year's Campaign

By the time the Hughes embarked on their third OAT adventure to Africa, in May 2010, they had raised funds for the purchase of 45 bicycles. In an emotional ceremony, which their entire OAT small group voluntarily attended along with 720 students of the school, the bikes were distributed through a lottery system among the 71 graduating students. And Naomi and Mark returned home determined to continue the tradition of providing bicycles to the schoolchildren of Karatu, Tanzania.

For their second annual fundraising campaign, the Hughes set 100 bicycles as their goal—including 19 for teachers at the four OAT-sponsored schools in Karatu, who also were in need of transportation. Each bike costs $100. By mid-year, the money the Hughes needed for the bicycles had already been raised. What to do? "We decided to give bicycles to the whole graduating class, as well as the teachers," Naomi reports. "And we still kept getting donations, so we began rolling it over into the following year's class, too."

Still, despite the success of the first year's event, challenges remained in making the second year's effort run smoothly. As always, finding help on the ground in Tanzania was critical. Fortunately, Sandra Vaughan of Grand Circle's regional office in Arusha, Tanzania stepped in to help facilitate purchasing bicycles from a shop in Arusha and getting them to the school in time for the ceremony.

"Africa runs on its own time," Naomi explains. "One of our biggest challenges was getting the bikes to the school early enough that they could be driven off the property on the day of the ceremony. That was a huge task that Sandra was determined to accomplish."

Sandra laughingly explains the difficulty. "Logistically, challenges were met from day one with how to buy 200 bikes," she reveals. "Then, how to assemble them—followed by where to store them and finally how to get them from Arusha to Karatu, a two-hour drive away. Then, once in Karatu, the problem became who would service the bikes and add the extras of locks and lights and baskets." This is where OAT Trip Leader Ridas Laizer provided assistance. Thanks to family ties in Karatu, Ridas was able to pull strings at the last minute to facilitate servicing of all 201 bicycles to be given away that day.

A Freewheeling Ceremony

Despite the hurdles, the bicycles arrived safely—and on time—and Naomi and Mark set out on their fourth OAT adventure with the bicycle presentation scheduled for May 14 of this year.

As with the previous year, the presentation was arranged for the day when the travelers were already scheduled to visit the school. The group was given the option of staying on for the ceremony or returning to their lodgings. Again, the entire group opted to stay for the event. "It was a great group," raves Naomi. "We bonded instantly, as soon as we met!"

As it turned out, it wasn't just travelers and schoolchildren who turned out for the ceremony. Just about the entire village was there. "We were greeted by about 1,500 people," Naomi marvels. "It was amazing. Massive!" The school grounds were lined with parents and children singing and showering the OAT vehicles with flower petals. The travelers were adorned with traditional Maasai clothing and jewelry, and everyone danced together in emotional celebration.

The travelers were then taken on their tour of the school as the bikes were prepared and numbered, not only to identify whose bike they would become, but also so that Naomi and Mark could provide each donor with a photo of the child they had helped.

One by one, the bicycles were presented, still by a lottery system even though every child was receiving one. "The kids didn't know they were all getting bikes," Naomi explains. "We can't guarantee bikes to all the kids every year, so we didn't want to set up false expectations."

Another glitch occurred when it was discovered that one child wasn't registered, so—no bike. "Once word got to our OAT travelers, two stood up and said they would buy the bike. I confess my tissues came out at this moment!" Sandra says. According to Mark, two additional donors from a previous OAT trip flew in specifically for the event and made a point of taking a photo of every child to give to them as a memento.

In all, bicycles were given to 130 students and 70 teachers from all four Foundation-supported schools in Karatu, as well as the pastor for the region. And there was one final surprise among the donations: a sporty red bicycle for Bashay Primary School's Principal, Justine Basso. "Having Mr. Basso involved made a huge difference," says Mark. "He's fully supportive of the program. Educating students is his first priority, so we know he has our best intentions at heart."

The Hughes are grateful to Grand Circle Foundation for putting them in touch with Sandra and for helping to make Pets Providing Petals a reality.

"We went to Africa for the animals, but the people stole our hearts," says Mark. Naomi adds, "I work hard, 12 to 14 hours a day every day, to make this work. I will keep going as long as I'm alive."

Featured in our June 2011 e-newsletter. Read the full issue here.