NEW TAMPA — As Debby Dowell peered into the eyes of the frail youngsters she taught in Africa this summer, she experienced a feeling like none she had gotten in 15 years of teaching in Hillsborough County.
"I felt that was a place that really needed me," said Dowell, who teaches reading to sixth- and eighth-graders, as well as advanced geography and language arts, at Bartels Middle School in New Tampa. "Here, there are hundreds of thousands of me. There, there aren't. Those kids appreciated everything you did for them."
During her two weeks in June in Namibia, just north of South Africa, Dowell worked with children of all ages. The subjects varied, and she also held seminars for the town's teachers on behavioral management, reading strategies and increasing vocabulary.
She stayed in the town of Arandis, home to 5,000 people living in just 400 homes. Of the 2-million people in Namibia, Dowell said 42 percent are homeless. Many live in boxes.
"These people have nothing. The AIDS epidemic there is horrible," she said. "The children there are just begging to be educated. They don't allow adoption in that country, which is surprising because of the number of homeless kids. They said if they allowed all these homeless kids to be adopted, their country would cease to exist within a generation. So they have to be educated."
That struck a nerve with Dowell, winner of the 2007-08 Hillsborough County Teacher of the year award. Through that honor, she learned of the African trip.
A former algebra teacher of Dowell's, Sandy Schmidt, heard she was a candidate for Teacher of the Year and contacted her about going to Africa with Missionary Ventures International.
Dowell always had wanted to travel the world and teach underprivileged kids, so she immediately began raising the funds to join Schmidt. For Dowell, Arandis felt like home.
"Despite the conditions, these were the happiest kids I've ever been around," Dowell said. "They appreciate life. That's what I learned, that the stuff that we're so entrenched with — we have to have the big car, we have to have the flat TV — that's not what it's all about. I came home, and I was able to look at my wants and needs with a whole new perspective.
Dowell witnessed 7-year-olds caring for younger siblings and families living in boxes. Among those living in homes, few had hot water and none had air conditioning. Starvation was common.
The school she taught at was a converted home. Everyday supplies such as pens and pencils were nonexistent.
"A lot of these kids had nothing but the clothes on their back, but they unconditionally loved me," Dowell said. "They didn't know what the taste of chocolate was like. So to be there and give them a few moments of happiness was incredibly rewarding."
Dowell also has completed a master's degree program, national board teaching certification, chaired her School Advisory Committee and continues to offer students extra help before school and during lunch. She also helps select novels for middle schools countywide.
As much as she loves the profession, Dowell, 50, acknowledges it gets tougher each year.
"Our country needs to figure out what even that Third World country of Namibia has figured out," said Dowell, who attended Wilson Middle School and Plant High. Their teachers are held in such high esteem because without them nobody else would have anything. We forget that in America."
Jaime DeJute, who teaches language arts, reading and geography at Bartels, credits Dowell for her career development — and for being a sounding board.
"Debby has shown me what it means to be a dedicated teacher," DeJute said. "She has helped prepare me and give me confidence to handle any situation I may encounter throughout my teaching career."
Dowell said she'd love to spend several years in Africa, but family obligations preclude that for now. She does, however, want to return for several months next summer.
"I wouldn't have come back if my family didn't need me," Dowell said, laughing. "I loved it so much. I felt at home there, and the work was very rewarding."