Several years ago, Susie Rheault and Gil Williams of Oak Bluffs, two longtime Vineyarders and a great husband-and-wife team, decided to do something to make the world a better place. They were on the lookout for a project that would enable them to do just that in Africa when a visit and fate intervened.
Susie had come to know and love Africa, first at a lion rehabilitation center she visited with her son and then, more important, with her work as a consultant with CHAI (the Clinton Health Access Initiative), an organization focused on the AIDS problem in Africa. It seemed natural to both Gil and Susie that the project, whatever it would be, would be there. Gil shared Susie’s enthusiasm, even though he had yet to visit Africa.
In March 2011, while working for CHAI, Susie brought her two loves — Gil and Africa — together. She and Gil went on a safari in Tanzania. But they also wanted to expand their view of Africa beyond superficial sightseeing. They wanted to understand the culture in a way that required getting off the typical tourist path, so they decided that they would stay in a local village in Tanzania for a few weeks.
“But I’m not good at just hanging out,” Susie said; “I’m not someone who hangs out without a purpose.”
The village they chose to spend time in, Nshupu, was on the slopes of Mount Meru. It was a poor village.
With the help of a guide, Joel Swai, a native of the village, they decided to get an insider’s look. Joe picked them up one morning, not knowing that he was leading them in a direction that would change their lives. He not only showed them his family home, comfortable by the extreme standards of poverty that surrounded him, but he showed them the desperate conditions most villagers lived in. After hours of exploring the village, and just when they were about to call it a day, they came upon a cinder block structure.
They wanted to know what it was. When Mr. Swai explained that it was an orphanage, they looked inside. What they saw shocked them. There were three nearly bare rooms. One of the rooms had a mattress where the woman who looked after the orphans slept, and the other two rooms had two beds, one for each room.
The only clothes the nine children in the orphanage had were on their backs. There were no books. There were no toys. And there was no food.
Susie and Gil looked with near disbelief at the grim sight, and then they looked at each other. It took only a
minute for them to realize that they had found their project. And then, as if fate was pointing the way, the very night of their decision to help transform the orphanage, they met a couple from Chicago who had already established a nongovernmental organization, and could explain many of the practical things they would need to do to realize their goal.
They also met William Modest and his wife, Sarah — the two people Gil and Susie say are the real founders of the orphanage — and they learned that as grim as the orphanage might have seemed, it was still an orphanage that provided at least some care that the children otherwise wouldn’t have had.
With the assistance of William and Sarah, they began to work to transform the orphanage. But they didn’t start building and hiring teachers immediately. That came later. Their first concern was getting the children medical attention and food. They needed to be dewormed and fed. Still, despite the physical problems and bleak living conditions, Susie and Gil said, the orphans were happy children from the first time they met them.
The deprivations that they had lived with all of their lives hadn’t destroyed their high spirits. But it’s hard to imagine what would have happened to those high spirits in time if Susie and Gil hadn’t taken it upon themselves to improve their circumstances.
William and Sarah and Susie and Gil transformed the cinder block orphanage into a building with a kitchen, bathrooms, and a large communal room, flanked on each side by four bedrooms, and now named the Precious Children’s Home. The orphanage now houses 16 children.
There is now a village school for children. Initially it was preschool to the first grade, but later this month will go up to the seventh grade, with an enrollment of 232 students, Gil said.
All of this is expensive, of course. And Susie and Gil are new to fundraising. “We mainly ask family and friends,” Gil explained. And some of their friends do get involved.
Vineyarders Elliot Kronstein, a dentist, and May Baldwin of West Tisbury are deeply committed to making the orphanage a success. Every year they spend time at the orphanage. Gil said they “work tirelessly to make sure all of the needs of the orphans are met.” But even with this support, they have to expand their fundraising. Still, Gil said he doesn’t want the orphanage and school to become dependent on their funds. He wants them to be self-supporting one day. And in time, they probably will be. They already have ways to collect rainwater, and an organic farm that will continue to be developed by people from the village. But the needs of the community are overwhelming. And the plans for the orphanage and school keep expanding. So fundraising will be a challenge for a long time to come.
For Susie and Gil, the hardest realization to come to grips with is the fact that they can’t help everyone in the village. When they walk through the village, where they now spend nearly six months a year, they see heartbreaking sights — and their hearts might break if they didn’t have the orphanage to go back to. Once back in the orphanage, they can see not only the happy faces of the children, they can imagine a future for the children who are growing up there.
They can also imagine how, one day, these children might transform their country on their own.
For more information, or to assist, go to preciousproject.org.