2008-12-18 / Health & Wellness

Oak Park grad helps African orphanage

By Stephanie Bertholdo bertholdo@theacorn.com

PROVIDING A HOME—Jackie Weiss is surrounded by children at the Tuleeni Orphanage in Tanzania during her summer internship earlier this year. Along with two other college students, the Oak Park High School grad is working to establish a foundation that will fund a larger, safer orphanage for the children. PROVIDING A HOME—Jackie Weiss is surrounded by children at the Tuleeni Orphanage in Tanzania during her summer internship earlier this year. Along with two other college students, the Oak Park High School grad is working to establish a foundation that will fund a larger, safer orphanage for the children. For African children orphaned as a result of the rampant spread of AIDS, Mama Faraji has been a godsend.

Faraji runs the Tuleeni Orphanage in Tanzania, an east African country facing the Indian Ocean.

Jackie Weiss, an Oak Park High School graduate, wants to help Faraji provide a home and education for more children than she's able to do now. A student at Cal State Sonoma, Weiss and two other volunteers are establishing a foundation to raise money to build a bigger orphanage in the African country.

Weiss, 21, participated in a sixweek summer internship at the orphanage with other students from around the world. The experience left the college students wanting to help Faraji broaden her reach and help more children who have been devastated by death, dwindling resources and abject poverty, Weiss said.

She has partnered with Eric Nelson, a neuroscience student from Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, and Amy Viola, who is pursuing a master's degree in social work at the University of Illinois in Chicago. The trio wants to start a foundation to fund construction of a larger, more structurally sound orphanage for Mama Faraji and her volunteers, who currently can care for only 40 children at a time.

Weiss, who is majoring in women and gender studies in college, had heard about Mama Faraji and her work with orphaned children and thought an internship would be valuable.

"Mama Faraji is, by far, the most amazing woman I've ever met," Weiss said. "She was an orphan herself and left school at an early age to care for her siblings. Now she works as a teacher and uses her earnings to care for (the orphans)."

Weiss, Nelson and Viola are trying to establish nonprofit status. Their grassroots efforts have included a letterwriting and publicity campaign to get more people involved in the effort. Weiss has contacted Oprah Winfrey and Ellen DeGeneres hoping for national exposure for Mama Faraji and her children. Each student is planning local fundraising events as well.

"We also already have a good network of people all across the country, Canada, and one person in the UK, who are eager to help us out as soon as we say 'go,'" Weiss said.

Weiss said Mama Faraji is one of the most selfless women she has ever met.

"While in Tanzania, Mama Faraji was one of the only people I worked with who never asked me for any money," Weiss said. "She simply asked if we would come back to the orphanage to play with the kids again the next day."

The children at the Tuleeni orphanage are hungry for education. Nelson said. The student interns helped children ages 4 to 17 with daily lessons in English, math and art.

The children's willingness to share stunned Weiss and Nelson. "When we would bring a big jump rope, they would each run in and jump just once and run out in a figure 8 motion so that each one of them got a jump," Weiss said.

Nelson said he once gave a pencil to a child who immediately broke it up into pieces. "(He) sharpened the fragments and shared them with the other children," he said. "They were just so thankful for anything that was given to them, even if it was next to nothing. Here . . . we lose sight of our privileges."

Weiss said the sixweek experience changed her life. "I never heard a single person complain, except other volunteers who were frustrated by the lack of luxury, electricity or hot water," she said.

"My entire experience being with them changed my life, seeing such happy and loving people who literally have nothing, but at the same time have more than most people I know," Weiss said.

Challenges to public health in Tanzania made an impression on Nelson, who plans on attending medical school to become a physician. Medicine may be inexpensive compared to western standards, he said, but many people cannot afford even basic treatment. Average African families do not earn enough money to pay for treatments for even runofthemill, curable ailments let alone HIV or AIDS, Nelson said.

"These economic barriers cause very treatable conditions to go unattended," he said. Movements to educate the public on HIV and AIDS have been slow because of the costs involved as well as the stigma, he said.

"The fundraisers Jackie, Amy and I are working on will hopefully help the children of Tuleeni build a bigger, warmer home, one where they can sleep in their own beds and feel comfortable, sheltered from the mud and mosquitoes that challenge their days," Nelson said.

For more information, e-mail Weiss at Weissjac@sonoma.edu or Nelson at ericnelson11 @hotmail.com.

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