Tuesday, December 30, 2014

'Tis the Season

Season's greetings, dear readers!!  I hope everyone has been having a wonderful winter thus far.  I am still in New York, delayed slightly by some admin tasks that require my attention before I can return to Moshi.  The weather has finally turned and it is fuh-reezing here!!  I cannot wait to get back to Kilimanjaro and feel some of that equatorial heat.  'Course once I've been there a couple weeks, I'll be lamenting frizzy curls and sweaty backs of legs, but the grass is always greener, si ndiyo??

Anyhoo, I've been busy with preparations for my return, which include everything from running around picking up school items from Vumi's wishlist to shutting down the NYC apartment and making sure the Moshi house will be in working order for my arrival to stuffing a suitcase full of skincare products, turkey jerky, and Luna bars to take with me.  It's always a big job making sure I have everything before I go since I won't be back until the Fall.  This year, however, I have a little extra assistance because my Momager (recently retired mother) is coming to TZ for a whole month to stay with me and help out with the Project!

It's all very exciting (not just because of all the extra swag I can stow in her travel bags) but because if this little experiment works out, it could be the first of many years to come that she joins me in Moshi with Toa Nafasi.  She has already been invaluable here in NYC and DC, planning the events, weighing in on decisions regarding the website and marketing materials, and using her big Momager mouth to publicize the Project to anyone who will listen.  Yeah, it's a little embarrassing at times but her enthusiasm keeps my energy up, and her incessant blabbing has produced some real results -- Ambassador Mulamula at the TZ Embassy, anyone....?!  It's good to have Carla on my side.

In addition to my mom coming, a good friend of the family and newly minted Toa Nafasi board member will also be spending some time nyumbani kwangu.  Barbara Finkelstein, who hosted the "friend-raiser" in Washington this year, is joining us for ten days to see the Project and a bit of the country.  Barbara is one of my mother's best friends and former colleague at the University of Maryland.  So it will be great to have two enthusiastic educators on-hand to see the Project, provide advice, and give support.  The Vuminator will be thrilled.

So, the three of us are gearing up to kick off what I hope will be a great 2015.  Last year was good, but hard, and I am hoping that this year will be slightly less stressful.  I just check the Toa Nafasi post office box this morning and found the booty pictured below inside, so I'm hoping all those envelopes are gonna help alleviate that anxiety!!

Thank you donors, thank you friends, best wishes for the new year, and love to all.

Fa la la la la, la la la la!!

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

"Getting Through" vs Breaking Through

In December 2012, I posted a blog entry titled "Black Friday" about the shooting spree at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut by an emotionally troubled and intellectually impaired teenager.

Two years later, the debate about Adam Lanza's care and treatment vis a vis his Asperger syndrome and various other psychological disorders continues to rage on.

National Public Radio's All Things Considered aired a segment on the December 14th anniversary of the tragedy and then published portions of the transcript on their website, which I have reprinted below.  

The piece centers largely on the fact that had Lanza's family, in conjunction with school officials, paid equal attention to his emotional and behavioral issues as they did his academic ones, whatever prompted him to commit his crimes might have been recognized earlier and therefore prevented.

The idea that children with special needs require special education plans is not a new one, but perhaps widening the lens to incorporate other intellectual disturbances - social, emotional - would be a more holistic way to address mental health in children and young adults.  That this aspect of a child's development plan is not an "educational priority" is clearly ignoring a key piece of the puzzle.


It's been two years since a gunman killed his mother at home and then opened fire at the Sandy Hook Elementary School, killing 20 first-graders, six educators and himself.  People in Connecticut are still hashing out just how parents and educators should handle children like Adam Lanza.

A team of doctors, lawyers, educators, and social workers from Connecticut's Office of the Child Advocate issued a report a few weeks ago, and while it says that Lanza is the only one responsible for what he did when he was 20 years old, it also says that there were warning signs and missed opportunities throughout his life.

One big concern was a lack of training, knowledge, and expertise. Take Nancy Lanza -- Adam Lanza's mother.

"Her instinctive course that she set was to get through the day," says Sarah Eagan, the state's child advocate and one of the report's authors.  "And you get through the day by managing the day."

"And, in some ways, that's a natural instinct," Eagan adds.  "She's the mother of a son who struggles to get through the day, who's afraid of everything, who doesn't want to leave the house....  And her default coping strategy became, 'I just have to get us through.'  And.... that kind of infused a lot of the choices that they made."

The report says that, when dealing with school administrators, Nancy Lanza was able to persuade them to "accommodate and appease" her son by avoiding things that made him feel uncomfortable.  By the time Lanza got to high school, whether he was learning in school or at home in isolation, administrators had one narrow academic goal: keep moving forward.

"I think the school had a goal of helping him graduate and get to college," Eagan says. "That was their goal.  It was a good goal."

But Eagan says it shouldn't have been the only goal.  While the district was satisfied as long as Lanza kept earning credits, it virtually ignored his social and emotional development.  In fact, the report says the district mislabeled Lanza in his crucial high school special education plan -- entirely ignoring the more apt eligibility categories of autism and emotional disturbance.  The district declined an interview.

Andrea Spencer, dean of the School of Education at Pace University and one of the co-authors of the child advocate's report, says the schools focused only on his academics and not on the depth of his disabilities.

"It appears to me from what we know that Adam was one of those students who slid beneath the radar in terms of his very serious social, emotional needs," she says.

That slide should be a real concern for anyone who deals with children, Spencer says.

"I guess the lesson that occurs to me is that we have to get and support a broader perspective on children's needs as part of schools, classrooms, teachers, administrators," she says. "Everyone needs to be more cognizant of the social/emotional aspects of children's development."

Jennifer Laviano, a Connecticut attorney who represents children with special education needs, says school districts often don't follow special education law intentionally.

"I have several clients with not terribly dissimilar profiles to Adam Lanza about whom not only am I worried, their parents are worried, their psychiatrists are worried, and I have gone to PPTs (Planning and Placement Teams) with school districts and said, 'This kid is another Newtown waiting to happen,' and they are telling me, 'No,' when I asked for an out-of-district placement for this child, which is recommended by the psychiatrist," she says.  "They're saying, 'No.'  And why?  Because it's expensive."

Spencer says money is a part of it but so are educational priorities.

"The degree of emphasis on test scores has the danger of preventing teachers from really looking closely at the breadth of a child's developmental status," Spencer says.  "For example, social and emotional skills.  And, in this case, it was clear that the focus was really on his academics, and despite the fact that it was very obvious - and people saw - that he was in emotional distress."

But what is obvious for Spencer may not have been obvious to everyone.  So she says another lesson is this: train educators at all levels to be able to recognize and report a mental health issue when they see one.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Go, Ghana, Go

I stumbled upon this recent article from SpyGhana.com, Ghana's leading general news and information destination online.  It describes that nation's impending inclusive education policy, planned for rollout in 2015.

Tanzania had one such similar national strategy first conceived in 2008 or so, but alas, it was more lip-service than put-in-practice.  Unfortunately, I have an uneasy feeling that the Ghanaian model will face a similar fate.

But, here's hoping....  And, who knows, if the Ghanaians are actually successful and establish that all-important PROOF OF CONCEPT, perhaps the Tanzanians will take note....?

Ghana will implement a new policy next year that offers clear-cut, comprehensive guidance to inclusive education implementation.

Under it, community sensitization programs to educate parents to bring out their children for enrollment, and the right to pick the choice of schools for their children are guaranteed.

Mr. Thomas Patrick Otaah, from the Special Education Division of the Ghana Education Service in Accra, said at a day's forum in Wa that every year children would be screened and all those found to have less disability challenges would be integrated into normal schools.

In addition, he said that special needs schools would change a bit, as children in those schools would be screened, assessed, and re-categorized, and those who could cope, would also be mainstreamed.

"With the implementation of the policy in 2015, no headmaster or teacher can turn away a child from his or her school because of disability."

"Head teachers will have to accept, admit, and welcome the children to school.  Every child has a right to education irrespective of individual physical, emotional, and intellectual difficulties or characteristics."

The policy also allows for pre-service and in-service training for teachers to manage children with special educational needs, and the University of Education, Winneba, will increase intake and provide this specialized training.

Mr. Otaah urged stakeholders, including community leaders, school authorities, parents and guardians, as well as district assemblies and educational authorities, to play their roles appropriately to ensure that the country adheres to this inclusive education policy.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

NYC to DC to GE

Hi everybody, hope all is well.  New York is aflurry (is that a word?!) with the first snowfall of the season and, as I prep to head back to the Muthaland in just a few short weeks, I am enjoying the dark, coziness of December on the East Coast.  Moshi is gonna be the exact opposite - hot, hot, HOT!

At any rate, I write to you the day after my third and final fundraising event of 2014.  The first two were replications of last year's "friend-raiser," held at the home of one of my new board members, Romana Li, an old family friend and a business-savvy, fundraising maven (see "Event-fully Yours" and "Event-fully Yours Redux" in the November and December 2013 blog archives respectively).

This year, we started the "friend-raising" season with an event in New York held in the community room of my parents' Upper West Side apartment building.  (I believe I mentioned that with my mother's recent retirement, I have a new Momager slash publicist slash social secretary slash travel agent??  Well, add "hostess with the mostest" to that list since she threw herself headfirst into the planning of this event with a fervor I've not seen since my Bat Mitzvah in 1989.)  Angi joined me in presenting the Project to the various attendees (former publishing colleagues of mine, NYU Law School and private practice tax peeps of my Dad's, NYPL and Schomburg literary types from my Mom's work, my sister's boyfriend, etc - a motley crew to be sure) as did "Big Mike," my fond moniker for Mr. Cartusciello who visited us in Tanzania with his family this past July (see "Kicking and Screaming" and "Jenga" in the August 2014 archives).

It was a great success from both the point of explaining the Project as well as raising a few shillings, and since me and Big Mike are Yankees' fans, I've taken to using baseball metaphors when describing our experience: a couple base hits for me and Angi, knocked in by Big Mike for a three-run homer!  Speaking of baseball - and knowing of a certain torch I carry - Big Mike also says that he has been trying to get in touch with the Turn2 Foundation, Derek Jeter's charitable organization, on Toa Nafasi's behalf, so we'll see if a (love) connection can be made!!  Meantime, check out the quite horrible photos taken by my Dad below; brilliant legal mind he may possess, artful eye, not so much....

The second event of the year was hosted by another new board member, Barbara Finkelstein, a former colleague of my Mom's at the University of Maryland and an expert educator.  It was largely the same, or a similar crowd, as last year, of family, friends, and family friends, but wonderful nonetheless, and a perfect coda to the "friend-raiser" events.

Angi came down from Boston again and gave her spiel after I did my thang, but Big Mike couldn't make it as he and Mrs. Cartusciello were celebrating their anniversary.  Still, we managed without him, and it was fun having Angi at the old Rosenbloom homestead for a night.  This time, the only photo taken was by my friend Anna Greenstone with whom I worked briefly at the School of St. Jude in Arusha (I was there only three months before rejoining Visions in Action in early 2009) and you can see me looking quite tall in my monster wedge shoes next to Anna's friend, Khadija, an mzanzibari who was a fun guest at the event - and certainly could vouch for the poor conditions in public primary schools in TZ and the need for programs like Toa Nafasi.

Last but certainly not least, yesterday, sans Big Mike AND Angi, I presented at a daytime event for the tax team at General Electric Capital.  The connection obviously came through my lawyer Pops, but even he knew very few of the people present.  So, it was a bit nerve-wracking to say the least!!  However, I was put at ease by the fact that I showed the Project as part of a "good deeds day" in which one of the GE head honchos had partnered with a local NGO supporting at-risk kids in the Stamford, CT area.

The whole thing took place in a cute little diner where the GE staff had taken over as servers and all funds raised went to Domus, this American NGO.  I was therefore able to latch on to that idea and raise a little bit of money for Toa Nafasi and some of the Domus youth even came and asked questions about what it's like to live in Kilimanjaro and how they could help their African counterparts (though Domus kids are considerably older than my primary school rugrats).

Anyway, even though I had to carry the presentation on my own, I can pretty confidently say I nailed it (!!), and the laid-back setting and jovial, familiar nature of the tax lawyers actually set me very much at ease - who woulda thunk it??  I've got no images of this event at all, which basically just means I should add another title to my Momager's extensive duty list: paparazzo.

Anyway, that's pretty much what I've been up to the past couple of weeks.  Going forward, I am getting ready for my repatriation into Tanzania, both excitedly anticipating the sun on my face and little grubby hands at my sides as well as steeling myself for the hard work, new case studies, and various frustrations that I will inevitably encounter....

But, whatever will be will be, it's all Tanzania to me!

Friday, December 5, 2014

Project Darasani

Part of my work with The Toa Nafasi Project is to be aware of other NGOs involved with the education sector in Tanzania.  I have Google alerts set, my internal radar up, and my "Momager" (recently retired mother who has developed a strong interest in helping with (read: running) the Project) on the scent.  I found the following radio interview between Atlanta high school student Saloni Sharma and the local National Public Radio affiliate there online.  It describes Project Darasani, an initiative to send school supplies and books to Tanzania.


Saloni talks about Tanzanian primary education being free but "not really" once you factor in the cost of uniforms, books, lunch, and other materials.  She discusses how Project Darasani, which she founded herself, gathers up supplies for donation and distributes them in TZ every year.  The "kids helping kids" program has put 16 Tanzanian children through school and collected more than 15,000 supplies of various sorts.
Kinda cool, right?  Makes me think a.) how I can perhaps have a similar branch of Toa Nafasi in which American kids provide much-needed school supplies to their Tanzanian counterparts and thereby feel a sense of camaraderie with the kids they are helping, and b.) when am I going to get an NPR segment??  Better ask my Momager....!!

Monday, December 1, 2014

Give a Little Bit

Pole sana, dear readers, for my prolonged silence.  The first Toa Nafasi "friend-raiser" of 2014 (and the first ever in New York City) followed by a working weekend in Philadelphia devoted to organizational development and then the Thanksgiving holiday made for a snowball effect the last two weeks.

After all the hullabaloo, I had to take a couple days to rest since later this week, we will host the second of this year's events, this time in Washington, D.C.  And, in just four weeks' time, I will be on my way back to beautiful Kilimanjaro to start Year Three of the Project and, hopefully, expand into the two neighboring primary schools of Kiboriloni and Msandaka.

At any rate, there is much to report but I must catch up on some correspondence and get to some financial matters kwanza, so this week's post will be a nod to #GivingTuesday, a "holiday" which was inaugurated in 2012 and which follows Black Friday (the busiest shopping day of the year) and Cyber Monday (ditto for online shopping).

Rather than focusing on the consumerism of the holiday season - and getting the best deal - #GivingTuesday is a day dedicated to giving back.  All around the world, charities, families, businesses, community centers, and students come together for one common purpose: to celebrate generosity and to give.

This year, #GivingTuesday will be tomorrow, December 2nd.

In the spirit of the day, I encourage all my readers to make a contribution to the charity of their choice.

The size of the gift does not matter, but the act of giving does.

Should you decide to donate to The Toa Nafasi Project, you can do so online at www.toanafasi.org or by mail at P.O. Box 20086, New York, NY 10014.

I leave you know with the immortal words and twelve strings of Supertramp.  Happy #GivingTuesday, everyone.

Give a little bit,
Give a little bit of your love to me.
Give a little bit,
I'll give a little bit of my love to you

Going home,
Don't you need to feel at home?
Oh yeah, we gotta sing....