Ashley Holmer's Red Sweater Project gives children in Tanzania a new chance at life
Every morning at her village in Tanzania, Ashley Holmer wakes up to the sounds of crowing chickens, screeching pigs and cows mooing right outside her window.
It is not at all like the lifestyle she led in her hometown of Lake Oswego with her parents, Bill and Marcia Holmer.
'The house and barn are roughly the same thing here,' Holmer said.
But Holmer makes up for the lack of luxury living with great accomplishment. With her Red Sweater Project, she is transforming the lives of many Tanzanian children, providing them education, health and hope.
Holmer has to endure a lot in her adopted country - workdays that never stop, constant marriage proposals from men overwhelmed by the presence of a white woman in their country and a diet that never varies from rice and beans. But she has a great vision - building the Mungere Secondary School.
'Days are long and one rarely stays clean with all the dust and dirt, which equals mud during the rainy seasons,' Holmer said. 'Many days I crave a hot shower and a meal different than rice and beans!
'But it's all worth it. These kids are crying for help, and if they had to choose between food and education, they would choose education.'
This has turned out to be quite a remarkable life for the former Lake Oswego golden girl. Holmer and her twin sister, Haley, earned the nickname 'Wonder Twins' for their outstanding athletic feats at Lake Oswego High School from 1995 to 1998.
Holmer went on to play college soccer at Willamette University, where she excelled so much that she was recently inducted into the Willamette Athletic Hall of Fame.
Her life took an unusual turn, however, in 2005 when she went to Tanzania with Haley (who has since returned to Oregon) to volunteer as a teacher and soccer coach at a village community school.
'The two of us lived in the village the whole year, with no electricity or running water, took bucket showers and used pit toilets,' Holmer said. 'During that time I became fluent in the language of Swahili and befriended many villagers and local educators.
'Then in October, the government and traditional leaders of a nearby village said they would give me 20 acres of land for free if I built them their first secondary school.
'I was crazy enough to say 'yes.''
The outcome has not been so crazy. Today, the Orkeeswa Secondary School has more than 120 students and its first class of students is scheduled to graduate in December.
In fact, Holmer did such a great job that she was asked to build a second school, the Mungere Secondary School. Of course, she again said 'yes.' Construction began in January.
It is students like Hawa Bakari who have made Holmer so dedicated to the children of Africa. The 14-year-old girl broke down in tears during her student selection interview in which she told Holmer and her staff about having no education, a dying father and living at the barest subsistence level.
'Last year Hawa scored high enough on her primary school examination that she was selected to attend a government secondary school, but her mother couldn't afford to send her,' Holmer said. 'At 14, Hawa knows that without an education she is destined to lead the same kind of life her uneducated mother leads, which usually means early marriage and early pregnancy, or turning toward a life of prostitution. To make matters worse, the area in which we work has one of the highest HIV infection rates in the whole country.
'But this is the reality for most girls like ours, and it is exactly why Red Sweater Project does the work we do!'
Fortunately, Holmer's project has drawn international support, and a lot of it comes from her friends back in Lake Oswego, even students at her alma mater of Lake Oswego High.
One local business that has stepped up to support Red Sweater Project is The Bank of Oswego.
'We're real excited to sponsor Ashley's project,' said Bridget Smith, director of marketing and public relations for the bank. 'Dan (Heine, bank president) knows Ashley and her folks. Red Sweater Project is one of our priorities in charitable giving.'
Anyone can help Red Sweater Project. For more information, go to www.redsweaterproject.org .
Why Red Sweater?
Red is the perfect color for the Tanzanian students of Ashley Holmer.
'All students attending school in Tanzania must wear a school uniform,' Holmer said. 'When we started the first school we wanted to show community members our commitment to supporting local traditions and upholding cultural values.
'As a result, we chose the uniforms to reflect what the Maasai wear on their shuka blankets: 'Red and blue.'
Wearing red has resulted in positive attention for Holmer's students.
She said, 'I frequently hear women exclaim, 'Look at those beautiful sweaters and how they just pop out of that African scenery!' I figured we were on to something.'
Perhaps the best thing about the red sweaters, Holmer said, is that they symbolize a Tanzanian boy or girl continuing on to secondary school.
'That is the best tool in combating global poverty. Period,' Holmer said.