PENFIELD — When Benedictine Father Damian Milliken arrived in Tanzania in 1960, charged with the task of building a school, he was astounded by the scope of the poverty he witnessed and the extent of the illnesses he saw afflicting the people he’d been sent to serve.
An Elmira native, Father Milliken had been ordained a priest at Rochester’s Sacred Heart Cathedral just two years earlier, and felt ill equipped to deal with the struggles the Tanzanian people faced.
“What did my years of (studying) philosophy and theology prepare me to do? I wanted to quit, become a doctor and come back. Then I could do something,” Father Milliken recalled July 13, as he spoke with a group of parishioners from St. Joseph Parish in Penfield.
Father Milliken stuck it out in Tanzania, however, and over the next several decades he built not one but three schools. Two are secondary schools for girls and the third is a parochial elementary school for both boys and girls. Graduates of all three schools have received top-notch educations and gone on to do great things, he said.
“In our class of 2012, of our 150 graduates, there are already 32 medical doctors and 40 teachers,” Father Milliken said. “I see how well the Lord has provided a far greater benefit to thousands more Tanzanians than my personal doctoring could ever have achieved.”
St. Joseph’s parishioners have been aiding Father Milliken’s efforts since 2012, when the parish formed its Tanzanian Action Team. Members of the team raise money for the Sisters of Our Lady of Usambara, who operate the schools established by Father Milliken.
“What these people are doing keeps us going, otherwise I don’t know how we would survive,” Father Milliken said.
It costs the sisters $1,000 a year to educate a single student, and while this may sound expensive, that total also includes the student’s room, board, uniforms, school supplies and basic health care, according to Jack Skvorak, one of the founders of the Tanzanian Action Team.
“It’s just so incredible how far that (money) can go, with the end result, we hope, that they can be self-sufficient,” Skvorak said.
Hopefully, these students will be able to complete their education and go on to successful careers, thus breaking the cycle of poverty in their families and providing positive role models for other young girls, Skvorak said. The Tanzanian Action Team accepts donations of any amount, which are sent to the Usambara Sisters, and the team also runs a scholarship program. For $1,000, people are invited to “adopt” a current student.
The team maintains a list of names, and sponsors are invited to choose their own students, if they so desire. Team member Jenna Darlak did this in 2012, choosing a student who shared a surname with her husband and son. Family also played a part in Tom Tornatore’s decision to sponsor a student, he said. He and his wife have two daughters, and learning about the struggles faced by Tanzanian women made them grateful for their own daughters’ education.
“They finished with school, and we thought this would be a good opportunity to support the education of young girls in another country,” Tornatore said.
“Education is very important to us, and so my husband and I became sponsors after we heard Father Damian speak here a few years ago,” added Karen Zilora.
Providing an education for these students allows them to transform their lives, as well as the lives of their families, and it’s this transformational element that makes the Tanzanian Action Team’s work so appealing, noted Deacon Duncan Harris, parish deacon at St. Joseph.
“It’s a hand up, not a handout,” Deacon Harris said of the funding provided to students through the team’s work. “They go on to be teachers, nurses, doctors.”
“We provide the education that gives them the opportunity to have a more active leadership role,” added fellow team member Ruth Marchetti.
EDITOR’S NOTE: To learn more about the Tanzanian Action Team or support its work, visit www.sjcpenfield.com/tanzania-action-team-1.