Westborough family inspired to help Tanzanian children

Scott O'Connell

If it seemed strange to Josef and Anne Kottler that their 22-year-old daughter, Elisha, was infatuated with the young inhabitants of a small, poor town in Tanzania, their puzzlement didn't last long.

After the Westborough residents traveled to Bagamoyo themselves this past June, they both admitted that the experience left them changed people.

"People can see when we talk about our experience, and our faces light up, how much this means to us," Anne Kottler said. "It's given more meaning to our lives."

Since returning, the Kottlers have made it their goal to help raise money to send a handful of Bagamoyo's street children to secondary school and give them hope for a better life.

Their journey began when Elisha Kottler, a student at Champlain College, went on her second trip to Tanzania to volunteer at a Bagamoyo children's center called IMUMA - an abbreviation of the Swahili words imani (faith), upendo (love) and matumaini (hope). Founded by Tanzanians Shariff and Asha Yusef, IMUMA gives about 49 children somewhere to go during the day and provides them a safe place to make friends and get a rare meal, Anne Kottler said.

According to the Kottlers, their daughter quickly fell in love with the children who came to the center.

"She fit right in," Anne Kottler said. "We wanted to know what it was like, why she was so drawn (to it)."

So the Kottlers, who had never been to Africa, flew to meet their daughter in Bagamoyo, a relatively well-developed town in the southern part of the country. What they found was a society lacking in material things but rich in culture.

"They seem to have a really positive and enduring spirit," Josef Kottler said. "It's definitely the friendliest country I've ever visited. People made us feel welcome everywhere we went."

The Kottlers quickly discovered that in Bagamoyo even strangers happily greet each other on the street. Tanzania, compared to other African countries, is also safe - there is no war or political instability.

But the nation is undeniably poor. "It's just a different life," Josef Kottler said. "Their whole existence is based on survival."

Most people lived in crude stick and mud homes, usually built around a communal water source. Food is scarce, and disease - particularly AIDS and malaria - is rampant. The economy is also extremely limited. Most Tanzanians lucky enough to finish their education find employment in the country's tourism industry, Anne Kottler said.

For the children who come to IMUMA, life offers little promise at all. Many of the children have one or no parents and spend their days on the streets, trying to find at least one meal to eat. In Bagamoyo, childhood ends quickly.

"These kids are bright," Anne Kottler said. "They just haven't been given what we've been given.

"All they want is some attention - they're starving for it."

The Yusefs have given kids a chance to escape the streets and join the community of IMUMA. But now they are raising the stakes by trying to get the kids into school, which will give them a chance to escape poverty. This year, more than 30 IMUMA children were sent to school.

For the center's six oldest kids, however, the $100 annual tuition fee for secondary school exceeds the modest budgets of most Tanzanians, let alone children without any source of family or personal income. When the Kottlers returned to Westborough, they vowed to send them the money to get their education.

The Yusefs also hope to build a computer center at IMUMA so kids will be able to learn to use the Internet. The Kottlers have sent two laptops to Bagamoyo, and have entered into a deal with the Salvation Army in Australia to send 15 more.

Back home, the Kottlers launched their new organization, Reach For Tomorrow, which they are running in cooperation with the Worcester-based non-profit YOU Inc. They are also teaming up with Needham event management company CN Planners and local establishments that are hosting their fundraisers.

Last Saturday they held their first event at Westboro Tennis and Swim Club, raising $600 toward their goal. Next Saturday, they are holding a poker tournament at Plymouth Church in Framingham. On Dec. 6, they will host a cocktail party, dinner and African art sale at Hisa Japanese Restaurant in Westborough.

Altogether, the Kottlers said they are hoping to raise $5,000 to 6,000 toward their goal.

"A little bit of money goes a long way," said Josef Kottler, who added that $4,000 is enough money in Tanzania to construct the planned computer lab.

When asked why they, like their daughter, have become so passionate about IMUMA's cause, the Kottlers said that their experience put the poverty they saw into perspective.

"When you come face to face with these individuals, when you play soccer with them or sing a song with them, the abstraction is gone and there are these children," Josef Kottler said. "You look into their eyes, and they're asking for help.

For more information on Reach For Tomorrow, visit www.reach4tomorrow.info.

The MetroWest Daily News