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Belleair woman who volunteered in Tanzania will receive town's humanitarian award

BELLEAIR

Ali Halverson wants to put a face on the issues of hunger and poverty in Africa.

So she talks about 5-year-old Sablina, who wants to become president. And Asia, 6, who is a tomboy and plays like "one of the guys." And Faudi, who is about 5 and loves to say the word "butterfly."

Halverson, 22, of Belleair spent five weeks in Tanzania this spring teaching these children and others. Later this month, the town of Belleair will recognize her volunteer work in Tanzania with the Belleair Humanitarian Award.

Halverson, who grew up in Belleair and spent summers volunteering at the town recreation center, played soccer for the University of Tennessee for two years. But after injuring her knees, she realized that her whole life had revolved around a sport she could no longer play.

A backpacking trip to Europe awakened her love of travel. She decided to go to Africa because she thought she needed to see the faces of the people who endure problems there.

"I wanted to do something instead of just hearing the statistics," she said. "I thought there might not be another time in my life when I can take five weeks off and go."

Through a global volunteer placement organization called Cross-Cultural Solutions, Halverson left in March for Bagamoyo, Tanzania, on the east coast of Africa. There, she taught English, science and art to a class of 50 children at Mwanamakuka Primary School, where pencils and paper were in limited supply.

When students used up the single sheet of paper they were allotted to write on each day, they went outside to practice writing in the dirt, she said.

"The kids are so eager to learn," she said. "You can't help but fall in love with them."

Because she knew only basic Swahili and because even the other teacher did not speak much English, Halverson at first relied on gestures and pictures to teach the students. Later during her trip, while volunteering with a nearby orphanage, she helped children conduct science experiments, which they had not done in class before.

"The kids are never asked what they think," she said. "That was the most rewarding part, seeing them actually think and process for themselves rather than repeat what they're told."

Belleair town Commissioner Mike Wilkinson nominated Halverson for the town's humanitarian award.

"I think it's an incredible thing she's done," Wilkinson said. "It's something she felt that was in her heart, and I admire that she went out and did it."

Halverson, whose journey was partly funded by donations from Belleair residents, said she was surprised that the town found her volunteer work worthy of recognition.

"I'm lucky to be part of a community that supported what I'm doing," she said.

Halverson hopes to set up a pen pal system and a sister-school relationship between the children of Bagamoyo and those of Belleair. In doing so, she hopes to create a cultural exchange between the children and make Belleair residents aware of the problems African children face.

Now that Halverson has returned home, she intends to finish college at the University of South Florida and get a degree in mass communications.

Although finishing college is her priority, Halverson cannot wait to return to Tanzania, where she made memories she will never forget — especially one of an 8-year-old student named Lati.

Several weeks into her trip, Halverson was walking home from school with Lati when the girl pulled her by the hand to a stand selling fruit.

Halverson was nervous about how to respond. She wasn't supposed to buy gifts for the children, but Lati seemed so desperate for a banana.

Instead, Lati, who wore a uniform with a broken zipper and no shoes, took out a coin and bought one banana. She broke off half and handed it to Halverson.

"Rafiki," Lati said — Swahili for "friend."

Belleair woman who volunteered in Tanzania will receive town's humanitarian award 06/30/11 [Last modified: Thursday, June 30, 2011 8:57pm]
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