Meet Teresia: A Girl Transformed

Scott Fifer’s reflections from his recent trip to East Africa:

Kilimanjaro region of Tanzania holds a soft spot in my heart. Kilimanjaro was where I first stepped onto African soil, and where I first realized the opportunity to improve the lives of children. It is really the birthplace of my inspiration for what would eventually become GO Campaign. GO Campaign supports several projects here because we feel a special connection to this community and a responsibility to give back to the children who have given us so much hope and inspiration.

In 2011, one of our Local Heroes, Mama Grace, from Kilimahewa School, said “Fifer, I want you to see Gabriella Center. It is very good. Very good!” I didn’t know what Gabriella Center was, but I knew that if Mama Grace says something is very good (twice), then it was worth at least a quick visit.

Gabriella is a therapeutic center for mentally-challenged and autistic children.  I visited the center, met its founder and director Brenda Shuma, and toured the modest grounds.  It was indeed “very good”.

In 2012, we gave Gabriella Center a grant of nearly $22,000 to provide short and long term care for 120 children.  The grant also included a stipend so they could hire Suzan, one of the kids I met on that very first trip to Africa. I knew she would be great with the Gabriella kids (and indeed she is, and now she is part of their full-time staff, working with the therapists, and teaching the kids drumming and dance).

The grant was so well executed by Brenda and her team and the results with the children were so impressive, we’re now fundraising for a $50,000 follow up grant which is 67% funded so far.

Brenda has since revealed that without that first grant, Gabriella Center would likely have shut it doors. It was in a financial crisis with no clear source of funding in sight. Brenda and her team were at wits end trying to figure out how to keep this life-changing center going.  The grant from GO not only kept them alive during this period, but allowed them to help more children as well as bought them time to analyze their funding model and come up with a sound financial plan. The grant from GO also gave Gabriella a certain gravitas they didn’t have before.  When other potential funders crossed their path, they pointed to the page about Gabriella on the GO website, and it led two other international funders to follow GO’s lead and invest in the incredible work of Brenda and her staff.

On this most recent visit this summer, Brenda wanted me to see the fruits of our investment (or really, the fruits of your investment).

We drove 10 miles outside of town, on a seemingly impassable road, waited for villagers to help move the two trucks stuck in the mud so we could pass… a typical Tanzania drive.  We finally reached our destination up the mountain, where the air was cooler and the banana trees plentiful.

The car ride was followed by a 10-minute hike, which included a river crossing where we had to jump on not-so-sturdy rocks to cross the raging water.  It was touch and go for a moment, and leaping across those rocks was definitely a leap of faith.  From the river, it wasn’t too far to the timber-hut home of Teresia, the 19-year old girl who had been nicknamed ‘Ma Speedy’ in her 2 years at Gabriella Center.

When she first came to Gabriella, in addition to her mental challenges, she had severe ADD.  She could not even finish washing her hands, before she sped off and started doing something new.  Unless sleeping, she could not sit still for more than a minute, and could not focus on anything.  Her mother had tried to send her to the village school, but because of her inability to concentrate, Teresia repeated third grade five times. After 5 years in the same grade without progress, she stopped school entirely.  Her mother was in tears, not knowing what to do.

When visiting the home of two autistic children next door, a social worker told Brenda about Teresia.  Brenda invited the mom to come to Gabriella, and Brenda told the mom “I think we can help”.  That was the start of Speedy’s enrollment at Gabriella, where she worked daily with therapists and lived at the center full time.

In the early months, the mother was so encouraged by her daughter’s initial progress, that she confided in Brenda that she had another child with mental challenges: a son with Down’s Syndrome. Mom didn’t like to tell anyone because some of the villagers think she must be a witch, cursed with two handicapped children.  So she kept her son hidden inside, fearing what villagers might do to him, or how he might get himself into trouble. The boy never saw the light of day, and when the staff at Gabriella found him, his skin was tougher than leather due to lack of sunlight.  Brenda took this young man, Erik, to Gabriella and greatly rehabilitated him in just one year. It was the happiest year of his life, where he not only saw the light of day, but made friends and was given a new suit which he said made him feel “like a Member of Parliament”.  They even started calling him “MP”.

Sadly, last Christmas, MP went home for the holidays and some neighboring youth thought it would be fun to give him some alcohol to drink, not knowing it would give him seizures, resulting in his death.

Mom was so distraught, and even moreso when Brenda told her it was time for Teresia to come back home.  The mom cried, ‘What has she done wrong?’, ‘Why can’t you keep her with you?’ ‘It’s not safe for her here’… not realizing that Teresia was coming home because she was ready to be a productive member of the family. This was something the mom could not fathom. So imagine the mom’s surprise when Teresia came home with income-generating skills: popcorn production!

Teresia not only cooks but packages the popcorn.  And popcorn is turning out to be a big business in her village.  Gabriella Center helped her find a marketplace for the popcorn in the next village over, but every time Teresia’s mom starts carrying the popcorn to that store, villagers come out of their homes and ask to buy packages as she is passing by. The mom sells out before ever getting to the next village! She gets 200 shillings per bag, and all that money goes to Teresia, who then gives some back to her mom, and keeps some for herself to buy luxury items like sanitary pads for herself.  Teresia has a younger sister (coincidentally named Gabriella), and one of the first things she did with her earnings was buy Gabriella two books she needed for school. Teresia is so proud, and she couldn’t wait to tell Brenda what she had done with her earnings when we visited. She keeps bragging how she is able to help her mom and sister and the smile on her face is priceless.

When I asked the mom what life was like now, she said that Teresia has shown her that anything is possible.  “Our life was so dark, but God has seen us through the fire and given us this miracle.  I never could have imagined this was even possible.”

The mom used to cry every day from worry and confusion, a widow with 3 children, two of whom had mental disabilities she could not begin to understand.  But now there are only tears of joy.  Mom does the accounting and keeps the books for Teresia’s business, and business is booming.  Teresia also enjoys contributing to household chores and she feels like a productive member of society for the first time in her life.

There are 60 other children like Teresia at Gabriella Center full time, hoping they too will find their place in the world.  And another 100 have shown up for Gabriella’s open-therapy weeks just in the first 6 months of 2014.  Word is spreading about the unique work of Gabriella Center because there is nowhere else like it in Tanzania.  Brenda dreams of one day having a state of the art center, leading the way for all of East Africa, rehabilitating children and removing the stigma of autism and mental disability from society.

Local radio and newspapers are starting to take notice of Gabriella. Even members of the Tanzania government stopped by to take a look, and they have promised to get all the kids at the center on national health insurance, which would help reduce the center’s medical costs greatly.  And more families are dropping by, hoping to add their child to the long waiting list that now exists in Brenda’s computer.  The need is great, and thanks to Gabriella’s efforts to raise awareness, parents are becoming less afraid to admit they have a special needs child.

Brenda and her husband took a loan on a larger plot of land nearby in the hopes of one day building this dream center.  It’s a peaceful plot amidst farmland, set safely back from the main road.  Last month they just paid off the loan.  Currently they are growing corn on the land to feed the children, but Brenda has already enlisted a local architect to help design the grand new center that can accommodate more youth.  Of course she can’t begin to afford it and there are no current plans for groundbreaking. As Brenda says with a big smile “We must dream for these children!  There is no harm in dreaming big!”