Naomi & Mark Hughes
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Naomi & Mark Hughes

Founders, Pets Providing Pedals

From her childhood days watching "Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom" on TV to her career as a professional dog groomer, Naomi Hughes has always been drawn to animals. Traveling to the Serengeti plains to see the wildlife up close became a lifelong dream. But when she and her husband Mark Hughes visited Tanzania for the first time on OAT's Safari Serengeti: Tanzania Lodge & Tented Safari and Best of Kenya & Tanzania adventures, something happened that she didn't expect: She fell in love with the people instead.

During that first safari, the couple visited the Bashay Primary School in the village of Karatu, where few families can afford a bicycle, something most American children take for granted. Yet, children there 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.

Walking great distances between home and school also leaves children exhausted, and because the village has no electricity, they can't study if they arrive back home after dark. To one of these children, a bicycle can be life-changing tool. "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. "It's amazing how something so inexpensive could impact their lives."

Upon their return to their Hamilton, Virginia, home, Naomi began using her dog-groomnig business, Omistar, to raise funds for bicycles for the children of Karatu. 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.

Naomi donates 100% of her tips from grooming pets toward the cause and also encourages donations. Instead of formal fundraising efforts, though, she uses her own infectious enthusiasm for the project to gain support on a day-by-day basis, meeting with great success. Since 2009, she and Mark have provided Tanzanian schoolchildren with more than 500 bicycles, including 250 this year alone. That proved more than enough not only for the Bashay School, but also for another of Grand Circle Foundation's primary school partners in Karatu, the Njia Panda School, and for the Tarangire Primary School on the outskirts of Tarangire National Park, which primarily serves the semi-nomadic Maasai people. The Hughes have also raised funds to donate bicycles for teachers, a local orphanage in Arusha, and Maasai women who host OAT travelers at Tarangire National Park.

Coordination on the ground in Tanzania is also essential, and the Hughes are lavish in their praise of Justine Basso, principal of the Bashay School, and of Ridas Laizer, their OAT Trip Leader, who helps out in a number of ways. Sandra Vaughan, East Africa Operations Coordinator in Grand Circle Corporation's regional office in Arusha, also plays a critical role, sourcing a manufacturer—and figuring out where to store the bicycles until they're presented.

Ultimately, it all comes down to what's best for the children. "We're proud to see the reaction of the kids," says Mark, "and to know that we're having a major impact on them and their families." It's an impact that wouldn't occur without the passion and dedication of Naomi and Mark Hughes.

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