Meghann Gunderman was working at an investment bank in New York in 2005, but deep down, she knew her passion lie elsewhere. It was a chance meeting with four-year-old triplets in Tanzania—a place she fallen in love with, doing field work in college—that beckoned her back to the country, this time with a mission: to give orphaned and vulnerable children the chance to receive an education, escape poverty, and, quite possibly, soar.
I wasn’t planning on making a career out of working in Africa—I just wanted to put a few kids in school. As a student at the University of St Andrews in Scotland, majoring in international relations and geography, my degree required me to do field work in Tanzania. I developed such an affinity for the country. I also fell in love with four-year-old triplets I had met, two brothers and a sister (Yusufu, Matayo and Helena), who were being pushed out of an orphanage because they were getting too old. I wanted to put them into a school and sent a group email to friends and family, asking if anyone wanted to do this with me. I was shocked by the overwhelming response. People started asking, “Are there more children we can help?” That encouraged me to formalize my effort.
There are over a million orphans in Tanzania. At some orphanages, children age out at age five, and are aged out sent into unhealthy environments. Geography dictates that these kids were going to get a poor quality of education, and I found that so disturbing. For the first time, I saw my own privilege. I saw these beautiful, innocent kids who were filled with hope and joy, and thought, “That’s not okay.” Our organization provides access to quality education for orphans and vulnerable children. The majority of our kids are in brutal situations. Some have one parent, some have no parents, some are being raised by elderly grandparents, some have parents who are HIV+, others are being raised by older siblings who are just children themselves. One little boy was brought to us by his 15-year-old brother, applying for a scholarship for him, in hopes he would have a chance—that broke my heart.
Currently, there are 114 kids in our Scholarship Program, receiving an education at private boarding schools. The program is tailored to the child: We find out what inspires and motivates them and cultivate that, as they get older, providing internships and job opportunities that connect with their passions. To help develop curriculum and foster a love of learning, we’ve also started a teachers’ training program. Life skills are also important. Our Full Circle Program teaches such skills, for example, the basics of health and hygiene—say, basic hand-washing for the first graders, or classes on reproductive health and AIDS for the older kids. In a traditional two-parent home, you’d learn thing like this, but so many of our kids don’t have that opportunity, so we want to pass those skills onto them. We want to lift up the entire family, not just the one educated child. To that end, we provide entrepreneur and financial literacy training for the parents and guardians, additionally offering micro-loans, so they can start small businesses—perhaps selling fish or beaded crafts at a nearby market.
I’m so proud of the depth to which we connect with our kids. There are 114 of them, and I know every one of them. In fact, I get “What’sApp?” messages from some of the older kids. We’ve been working with one our graduates, Richard, on his interview with the American Embassy for a student visa. He got accepted to college in the U.S. He wants to study cyber security, and is going to live with one of our board members in Seattle starting this June.
Every September we do a Vision Trip, where TFFT supporters from the U.S. come to Tanzania for ten days to see our work. One woman who came over had been sponsoring one of our students, Angel, so we introduced her to the child. During a home visit, the sponsor learned that Angel’s mother was an alcoholic, whose only source of income was selling alcohol in a local shop. Our sponsor had also grown up with a mother who was an alcoholic—something we didn’t know when we originally matched the two of them up. About two weeks after the sponsor had left Tanzania, Angel’s mother passed away. Since then, I’ve witnessed an incredibly special bond that has formed between our sponsor and this little girl—the letters that go back and forth, the love. Experiences like this make me so appreciative of the world I’ve walked into.
HOW YOU CAN HELP
*Sponsor a Child: A contribution to our Scholarship Program will provide orphan and vulnerable children with access to a quality education.
*Invest in our Lighting the Way Campaign and help build an innovative and interactive learning center, the first of its kind in Tanzania.
*Share our work through social media.