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School founded by Hinsdale resident brings change to Tanzania

HINSDALE – An educated mind is one of the most powerful weapons a person can possess. Nevertheless, in parts of the world, much of the population is illiterate.

In 2006, Kellie O’Brien and her daughter, Heather, went to volunteer at a convent in Tanzania to aid the Maasai population.

“The Maasai are probably the most traditional of all African tribes and the last to change,” said Kellie O’Brien, who is a Hinsdale resident and the owner of English Gardens, LTD. “They still live in huts, still have no electricity and no furniture.”

While volunteering, O’Brien said she gave miscellaneous items, but at the end of the day, no one’s life changed.

That’s when she asked what she could do to really make a difference in Tanzania. The answer was to provide a prominent school funded entirely by donations.

One year later, the O’Brien School for the Maasai opened.

“We saw that there were hundreds of children outside the classrooms,” O’Brien said. “The village had more children than we ever imagined.”

O’Brien said the school follows a Tanzanian syllabus and emphasizes modern health, vocational training, honesty and respect. Everything is taught in English at the 10 classroom facility and students must have a high attendance rate to remain enrolled.

“We’re not trying to change the culture. We’re not trying to change what they believe in. But if we have these students, our goal is not just education academically, but it’s also formation,” O’Brien said.

School Director Rebecca Sliwoski, 23, of Clarendon Hills is stationed at the school and said while most schools in Tanzania only require a 30 to 40 percent average to pass, the O’Brien School requires a 70 percent or higher average across the core subjects in order to pass.

Sliwoski and O’Brien said they have encountered cultural obstacles with the Maasai. While the mothers want to see the children go to school, the fathers are sometimes set in the old ways, such as arranging marriages as early as 14 years old.

“They’re quite stubborn and set in their traditional ways, but gaining the respect of all of the elders, especially since I’m a young woman in a very traditional village, was key,” Sliwoski said.

Since the school opened, O’Brien said the fathers have been valuing education more and now are proud of their daughters.

O’Brien and Sliwoski also recently attended the African First Ladies Summit in Tanzania that was organized by former President George Bush and former First Lady Laura Bush. Sliwoski said it was a “surreal experience.”

“I mainly loved speaking to other education-based organizations from around Africa and exchanging success stories, best practices and even snippets from our failures,” Sliwoski said.

At 70 years old, O’Brien has no plans of slowing down as she continues to provide the best for the school, even climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro last year as a fundraiser. Seeing the positive impact on the students and community, she said, has been worth the journey.

“You don’t have to be rich. You don’t have to have all the answers. You just have to have the will to be able to plow through what has to be done,” she said.

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