Passion Points: Giving Back
Q&A: Meghann Gunderman
After falling in love with Tanzania and witnessing the plight of its children, American-born Meghann Gunderman founded The Foundation for Tomorrow in 2006, where she is now the executive director. TFFT aims to offer equal education to orphans by helping them overcome the structural shortcomings of a developing nation. Here, she shares with Indagare some of her inspirations and goals, and her love of the complicated but overwhelmingly beautiful Tanzania.
You launched TFFT after volunteering at an orphanage—what is your strongest memory from that impactful experience?
My first time in Tanzania was in 2004 while I was volunteering and doing research during college. I have so many memories from that trip that helped shape who I am and what I am doing now. The strongest memory, and something that motivates me to this day was as simple as watching children pass by a trash heap. Rather than turn away, the kids dreamt of the trash’s possibilities. They created soccer balls or toy cars from junk, thereby turning garbage into smiles, laughter and sports. It’s that mentality, that ability to do something with so little that makes me constantly ask myself, “What am I capable of doing with the resources at my disposal?”
Specifically, a set of triplets captured your heart during your first summer volunteering—where are they now?
I met Helena, Yusufu and Matayo in 2004 when they were four-years-old, and they inspired me to launch TFFT. They are still very present in my life and remain an inspiration today. The triplets turned 13 on Nov. 2nd and have become loud, sassy, fun, smart, creative and happy kids. They are being fostered by a TFFT staff member, so during their school holidays they stay nearby.
What is your proudest achievement?
Our scholarship model is what I am immensely proud of because of its individualization and longitudinal scope. Beyond that, it is our 94 students on full 12-year scholarships.
I’ve had the privilege to watch Irene, one of the TFFT Scholars, start to fulfill her dream of becoming a pilot. She recently got to “co-pilot” a plane to Lake Manyara (read about her experience on the foundation’s website). I was just talking to her this week because she has a six-month break from school and we’re trying to find her an internship. We are hopeful she’ll get the opportunity to work with the airline responsible for her first flight. It would be an incredible way for her dream to come full circle.
What is your biggest frustration with the Tanzanian orphanage and education systems?
With regards to orphanages, we stand by the philosophy that children, when possible and safe, should be reconnected with their families or any existing relatives. All too often in Tanzania, if one parent dies and the other thinks they can’t handle raising the child, they will drop their son or daughter at an orphanage. It sadly becomes an easy out. We at TFFT believe in the limitless potential of our scholars, and that these children will become contributing members of their societies, develop into independent and responsible people and reduce the orphan-hood and vulnerability problems. We are very careful as an organization to only empower and to not become a crutch for people.
Tanzania’s education program is a systemic problem that has been an issue for decades. We are hoping our forthcoming Transformer program will contribute to the solution, but overall there needs to be more focus on the educators, who tend to be poorly trained and severely under staffed. The Tanzanian government’s approach to the education crisis—haphazardly constructing new schools—has resulted in an extreme teacher shortage, and educators who have not been all the way through school themselves. The results are devastating. Only 28% of primary students (lower and middle school) carry on to secondary (high) schools. Sixty percemt of 2012’s high school graduates failed their national exam, and the numbers are getting worse, not better.
Have you traveled around much of Tanzania?
The country’s mix of beautiful land, culture and people come together to make Tanzania welcoming, warm and so much fun to explore. Over 25% of the nation’s land is national parks and wildlife reserves. Tarangire National Park, which is home to countless elephants, is not far from our offices and I’ve been to the Ngorongoro Crater, the Serengeti, Lake Manyara and Lake Natron, which are each unique and beautiful. I’ve climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro, which was an exhilarating feat, and I wake up to Mt. Meru each day. I mountain biked the 400-miles from Usa River to Tanga, a stunning journey full of fascinating topography. My favorite part is going up the Usambara Mountains. I’ve also gone out to the west to Lake Tanganika. The lake itself is stunning, and I love the entire Kigoma region. It is much more rural and visiting makes for quite an adventure. My next trip is hopefully to Mahale, a remote paradise known for having the largest population of wild chimpanzees.
Read more about The Foundation For Tomorrow.
Read Indagare’s Tanzania Destination Report.
Just Back From... Mukul
On the last morning of a sun and sand-filled family vacation at Carlos Pellas’ exquisite new resort, Mukul, I found myself seated with about ten other wide-eyed guests in a sunlit barnyard, hemmed by golden plantain fields and guardian foothills. As hulking oxen, scruffy horses and a neighbor’s curious children looked on, our radiant hostess, a tiny but sturdy woman of irrepressible vitality, served us tortillas with cuajada (homemade farmer’s cheese) and pinolillo, an ancient beverage made from blended grains and spices – in this case toasted corn kernels, wheat, oatmeal, cinnamon and cacao.
Semana Santa (Holy Week) was well under way in the Nicaraguan countryside, and our group had gathered at Doña Lupe’s home to prepare traditional rosquillas – simple bite-sized, donut-shaped crackers that are baked by the hundred in the days leading up to Easter. While Doña Lupe kneaded the dough with all the force of her wiry frame and reviewed its ingredients – milled masa, cheese, butter and milk that her cow had supplied earlier that morning, Mukul’s Manager of Corporate Social Responsibility, Jon Thompson, served as translator for our group.
So many far-flung luxury hotels take great pains to obscure the hardscrabble world just beyond their walls, but in the case of Mukul’s founding family, it was a concern for this world – and a desire to invest in its fragile future – that has anchored their vision and informed every phase of its execution. Now their guests are invited to acquaint themselves with and even participate in the realities of life in rural Nicaragua. Prior to our rosquilla-making lesson, we had visited the nearby community of Las Pilas and its storied mill, which has been run by different generations of the same family for decades. This was where the masa for our rosquillas had been ground. Afterward we had stopped in the town of El Coyol to see its elementary school, where Jon and his team are using community theater to foster discussion on environmental conservation and sustainable farming practices. Next on Jon’s ever-lengthening agenda: bolstering the area’s personnel-strapped baseball and soccer leagues. “I have many areas of non-expertise,” he laughed modestly. In his spare time, Jon runs a Fair Trade coffee cooperative in the country’s northeastern jungle. Mukul’s guests have him to thank for the outstanding coffee that arrives on their terraces each morning just after sunrise.
One of Mukul’s most successful – and most inspiring – initiatives provides local families with access to safe drinking water by arming them with highly effective, low-cost ceramic filters designed at MIT. In a region where many live on less than $1 per day, a $25 water filter is a costly luxury and an expense that the recipient households could not have absorbed on their own. Though Jon and his colleagues might have simply distributed the filters, they knew that ultimately a hand-off wouldn’t make the lasting impact for which they were hoping. Instead, community leaders met to determine each village’s most pressing needs, and in exchange for a filter, participating families committed to sixteen hours of community service in support of the projects they, themselves, had proposed. The residents of El Tambo, for instance, where Doña Lupe lives, collaborated to dig a well for the local school. Since the water filters were introduced, reported cases of diarrhea, parasites and other infections have dropped significantly, and the once beleaguered doctors at the community health clinic can allocate their energy and resources to issues that would previously have fallen between the cracks. The clinic, by the way, has received a number of upgrades courtesy of Mukul, including a two-bed recovery room, two new bathrooms, a storage room, a septic system and a handicapped-accessible entrance ramp.
That evening, a heaping plate of fresh, crisp rosquillas, delivered directly from Doña Lupe’s kitchen, appeared with our coffee at the end of dinner. Collectively, and with varying degrees of precision, we had molded well over a thousand prospective rosquillas, and she had spent the whole of the afternoon rotating trays in and out of her rustic wood-burning oven. Over the course of my week in Nicaragua, I had woken up each morning to life-affirming views of the glistening Pacific, witnessed a troop of boisterous primates escort my elated little brother from hole to gorgeous hole on Mukul’s golf course, and even peered into the smoldering crater of an active volcano, but I knew it would be a long time before I forgot the rough-hewn beauty of Doña Lupe’s farmstead, humble yet idyllic, or her wonderful generosity of spirit.
It struck me that what had most impressed me during my stay at Mukul were the guilelessness and warmth of the people, from the waiter who proudly doubled as Pellas family historian, contextualizing each of the ancestral heirlooms and photographs on display in the resort’s dining room, to my transfer driver from Managua, who, after politely fielding two hours’ worth of questions about the country’s flavors and seasons, pulled over to a favorite roadside produce stand and began assembling a bag with all manner of flamboyant tropical fruits, repeating their names slowly to help me remember them: zapote, jocote, níspero. At the end of my week at Mukul (an ancient Mayan word meaning “secret”), I was quite persuaded that the “secret” of the place lay somewhere near the intersection of luxury and authenticity – splendor and substance. I left Nicaragua wistfully but profoundly refreshed, and grateful that we had been able to give something back to a place that had given so much to us.
Giving Back: Akanksha
To the thousands of kids growing up in India’s slums, Akanksha–whose logo is appropriately that of a rising sun–is the brightest hope in their lives. Started twenty years ago by an eighteen-year-old college student, the program consisting of schools and extracurricular activities provide a reprieve from the kids’ daily hardships. It all began in a donated Mumbai church basement, with volunteers teaching art, English, values and self-esteem to young children who came in from the city’s slums. As the Akanksha children got older, the organization flourished and staff could start to help the kids with schoolwork, passing standardized tests, applying for scholarships and honing their marketable skills for the professional workplace.
To date, Akanksha has educated over 6,000 in 40 extracurricular centers and thirteen schools. Today the organization teaches over 4,000 enrolled children who boast and extraordinary 95 percent completion rate of secondary school. Akanksha kids have gone to to university and to become professionals and leaders. One of the many touching signs of the programs’ importance and success is the number of volunteers who are themselves Aknksha alumns–currently there are 32 alumni working with the organization.
For most of India’s slum children, the Akanksha program is the surest path towards a real future and breaking the cycle of poverty. Through providing one-on-one attention and love, the organization manages to affect change for thousands of kids. Everyone involved in the organization–from the volunteers and teachers to the students and alumni–live and work by Ghandi’s famous saying: “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”
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