U.S. Teen Raises $25,000 to Build Tanzanian School By Philip Rucker Washington Post Staff Writer Sunday, June 29, 2008 The one-room elementary school in a poor village in Tanzania was little more than a rusted shed. There was no electricity, running water or plumbing. Some students sat on benches, others on the dirt floor. There were no desks. On one wall hung a chalkboard, but the teacher couldn't afford chalk. The scene was so disturbing to Ashley Speyer, a 17-year-old from the District who spent her summer vacation last year in Africa volunteering at the school, that she returned home determined to build a new school for the children of Moivaro village. The rising senior at Sidwell Friends School worked with a lawyer to set up her own nonprofit organization and raised the $25,000 needed to build the school from classmates, relatives and family friends. Speyer hired a native Tanzanian to construct the building, work she has monitored through e-mailed photographs. Yesterday, Speyer and her mother, Mary, returned to Moivaro for another summer. They hope to put the finishing touches on the new school -- painting the walls, setting up the desks -- and open it to Moivaro's children. "I went on this trip, saw an opportunity to make a difference and was inspired by the villagers," Ashley Speyer said at her home in Northwest Washington, recalling her experience last summer. "I was inspired to be a lasting part of the community," she added. "We had an opportunity to really make a difference for a nominal amount, and once you're granted an opportunity you have a responsibility to see it through. It's a powerful thing." The old school was demolished to make way for the new one, which will provide classroom space for about 75 children. The building also will serve as a venue for village gatherings. The building only cost about $25,000, because labor and materials are relatively inexpensive. "The simplicity of what we were able to do is what is so powerful," said Mary Speyer, a former fundraiser for Democratic politicians. "It's a very simple way to make something happen that has such a big impact." Ashley Speyer said she hopes the new facility and more modern classroom materials, such as desks, will help make a difference in the schooling of children. "With poverty and disease so prevalent in the culture, it's so important to have a good education, to have knowledge, to succeed and get a job and end the cycle of poverty," Ashley Speyer said. Jessica Schwartz, 20, a junior at George Washington University who is from Pittsburgh, traveled with the Speyers last summer and helped Ashley with the school. "This village was in such need of something," Schwartz said. "To see what they used to have and see what we've built them, it's really going to change their lives. These kids don't have shoes. They don't have anything. But they go to school because they want to learn." Reached by telephone in Tanzania, Thompson Akyoo, a native of a nearby village who has overseen the construction, said residents of Moivaro are excited for the Speyers to return and open the school. "People are always coming around and are very happy and they pray and pray and pray for the people who are building their school," Akyoo said. "The children ask me every day, 'When will they come?' I say, 'They will come soon.' Everyone wants to say, 'Thank you.' " It might sound remarkable for a teenager to start a nonprofit group and build a school overseas, but leaders in philanthropy say that young people across the United States are becoming increasingly engaged with impoverished nations. Some are motivated in part by the work of such philanthropists as Microsoft founder Bill Gates or former president Bill Clinton, whose foundations have raised the profile of deprived countries. Others have been inspired by the bestselling book "Three Cups of Tea," Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin's adventure tale of climbing to remote regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan to build schools in an effort to promote peace. Since publishing the book in 2006, Mortenson, who lives in Montana, said he has visited hundreds of U.S. schools and sensed a growing global awareness among teenagers. He said dozens of teenagers are working to build schools in villages across the world. In the affluent Chicago suburb of Winnetka, for example, students at a private preparatory school raised $32,000 this year to build a new school in Tanzania, he said. "It's phenomenal. It's not just little bake sales and lemonade stands," Mortenson said. "Kids are going out and just doing things on their own, because they realize that governments and politics will never make a difference, and it's really people that make a difference." Ashley and Mary Speyer visited Africa last summer through Cross-Cultural Solutions, a program that connects American tourists with volunteer opportunities abroad. They said they became immersed in life in Moivaro, developing attachments to the village's pastor, teachers and children. "My goal was to not experience Africa by going on a safari and going home and looking at all our pictures," Mary Speyer said. "We really wanted to experience Africa. Obviously we were out of our comfort zone in a developing country." She said the experience changed her daughter's world view. Ashley taught young kids how to blow bubbles and make hand puppets out of clothespins. By the time they left, Ashley said, "We were both in tears." "We felt just so accepted in their village and a part of the village."