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Cape Ann women helping East African orphans

September 7, 2014

GLOUCESTER, Mass. (AP) — Nearly three years ago, Mary Hintlian of Gloucester went on safari to Africa with her daughter, and they took a detour that would lead to a life-long commitment to an orphanage.

And they found a commitment to making deep improvements in that part of the world.

Astounded at the work of one American woman, India Howell, Hintlian is reaching out to her neighbors and fellow residents to spread the word about the Tanzanian Children’s Fund, which runs the Rift Valley Children’s Village that serves as home to more than 90 orphans.

Howell, who started the organization 10 years ago, is finding a growing number of interested locals, some who participate in volunteer service opportunities.

Earlier this year, Hintlian and Rockport artist Eileen Mueller did just that when they traveled to the village. But they found much more than an orphanage. The rural grammar school the organization oversees, Gyetighi Primary School, continues to be the No. 1 public school in the district, and was ranked in the top 2 percent of all primary schools (public and private) in Tanzania, Hintlian and Mueller said. In addition to education, the organization is at work at a larger economic development piece to bolster the region — all this within one decade.

Mueller always wanted to take part in a service trip to Africa, and found this a life-changing trip.

“I went with an open heart and mind, and was just astounded at what India is doing,” she said. “The poverty in Africa is something you can’t believe but the spirit of the people is enormous. I left feeling fortunate that I had this opportunity. India is changing lives.”

Peggy Bacon, who chairs the board of the Tanzanian Children’s Fund, said the organization has a contingent of supporters from Cape Ann, which is growing with Hintlian spreading the word. The Tanzanian Children’s Fund was hatched in Maine with its first office in Portland, but in 2010 it was incorporated in Massachusetts where it has a Boston office.

Howell and Bacon recently visited Gloucester to meet with their supporters and others who wanted to learn more about this intercontinental connection.

“It is not just about the wonderful group of orphaned children any more. Rather, the Children’s Village is one part of a multi-pronged community development program or, I like to call it an attack on generational poverty in Oldeani Ward, a coffee growing region in northern Tanzania,” Bacon told the group.

Not only has Howell’s work provided a home to orphans, it also has provided work to villagers who never had a job before, and scholarships to high-achieving students.

The micro-finance program is growing. Graduates from their teacher-training program are improving teaching methods throughout the country, and the 8,000 residents of Oldeani now have access to medical care. Their motto: “A Rising Tide Lifts All Boats.”

Howell, the founder and executive director, lives in Tanzania permanently where she watches every penny of donor money, for which she is grateful for every cent.

One unique aspect of the orphanage is that the children are never put up for adoption; Howell’s mission is to provide a family, forever, “and the intangibles needed for success and leadership — security, belonging, love and confidence.”

The Hintlians’ connection to the orphanage came from a serendipitous conversation, and has a connection to Iggy’s bread, a popular item on the North Shore. Howell and Hintlian’s daughter Lauren have a mutual friend from Iggy’s. In a former career, Howell was a business consultant who worked with Iggy’s to launch it on a larger scale. Lauren was told that she should visit Howell on her trip to Africa to see her latest effort.

“We were driving through areas of abject poverty and then we arrived at the Rift Valley Children’s Village where there were flowers in the window boxes and a tidy yard,” said Mary Hintlian. “She had no clue who we were and she was there to meet us with about eight little children. As we learned more, the thing that struck me the most is that India is not only giving them love, but a real childhood. This is not an institutionalized children’s village at all. It’s a home and she is their mother.”

Hintlian expected to leave the orphanage with less-than-upbeat feelings.

“But we left feeling so inspired and I knew I wanted to help in any way that I can,” she said. “I couldn’t stop talking about India and her work. People ask why Tanzania when there is so much need here. My answer is that it doesn’t have to be ‘either/or.’ In this case, the opportunity presented itself to me and I felt there was a higher power directing me or it wouldn’t have happened. We are one world.”

Since meeting Howell, Hintlian has started fundraising for the organization, an effort which her family has embraced.

“India is the most remarkable person I have ever met, and so humble. I feel like I owe something back because I have been blessed, and I believe these children to be such a blessing,” said Hintlian. “She is changing lives and changing the path of generations to come.”

Howell’s journey to her new life’s path also was serendipitous. She traveled to Tanzania to climb Mount Kilimanjaro.

“I’ve heard it said that our path in life is most often found when we are on the road to someplace else,” she wrote in a bio statement. “I discovered my path the moment I stepped off the plane in Tanzania. I felt that I had stepped into the place where I belonged.”

Howell changed her business plans of buying a bed-and-breakfast in Vermont, and moved to Tanzania. She found work there and noticed an ever-growing number of homeless children begging on the streets. Those observations sparked her desire to do something.

A decade later, Bacon said other organizations have been so inspired by Howell’s methods that they have created similar programs.

For Hintlian and Mueller, the most meaningful part of the experience was sharing a home with the children.

“Emotionally, I can’t say it wasn’t hard because you have to say good bye and you get attached,” recalled Mueller. “But my experience sitting on the couch with the children is that we are a small planet and this is such a small world. They are forever embedded in my heart.”

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