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Rotarians lend helping hand to Africa Bridge

$61,000 donation greets Deborah Saunders as she takes the helm of the Lake Oswego-based nonprofit

SUBMITTED PHOTO - Lake Oswego residents Chris and Joy Rich and their children, Grace and Gus, visited Tanzania in late July and early August to see the impact of Africa Bridge firsthand. Through its efforts, the nonprofit has helped lift 28 villages out of the cycle of poverty.REVIEW PHOTO: CLIFF NEWELL - Deborah Saunders has only been the executive director of Africa Bridge for a few months, but Lake Oswego Rotarians like Scott Havens have already made a huge contribution to her organization.If Deborah Saunders had any doubts about relocating to the West Coast from her native New England, they were quickly dispelled at the Lake Oswego Rotary Club’s recent Lobster Feed and Charity Auction.

In June, Rotarians welcomed the new executive director of Africa Bridge with a special paddle raise that will help her continue the nonprofit’s mission to improve the lives of vulnerable children in Tanzania.

“Rotary raised $61,000, and I’ve never seen an event so well organized,” Saunders says. “It was just tremendous.”

And it was just the beginning. Local Rotarians hope to parlay their fundraising efforts into a Global Grant from Rotary International that will dramatically increase funding for Africa Bridge’s humanitarian efforts.

“We got a Rotary Global Grant for Africa Bridge five years ago,” says former Rotary President Scott Havens. “Roger May (a longtime Lake Oswego Rotarian) was very instrumental in getting that together, and we’re going to work to get another global grant this time.”

That’s good news for an organization that has been working since 2000 to help villagers in Tanzania identify their most vulnerable children and develop care plans for them. Africa Bridge provides start-up capital, education and training to establish agricultural co-ops that produce income for the children’s families — and change the economy of the entire village in the process.

SUBMITTED PHOTO - Since 2000, Africa Bridge has worked to help villagers in Tanzania identify their most vulnerable children and develop care plans for them.Through its efforts, Africa Bridge has so far helped to lift 28 villages out of the cycle of poverty.

“We chose to help Africa Bridge this year because we have been to Tanzania and seen the impact it has,” Havens says. “There are a lot of nonprofits out there, but we wanted to go with Africa Bridge. We knew our partnership with them would have great success, because we’ve had great success in the past. The timing was good.”

The timing was good for Saunders, too. She took over the role of executive director in April, succeeding the organization’s founder, Barry Childs, who was a member of the Lake Oswego Rotary Club before moving to Rochester, N.Y.

Saunders had been happily ensconced in New England, where she was president and CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Ocean State in Cranston, R.I. She’d also held leadership positions with Greater Manchester YMCA in Manchester, N.H., and the Children’s CoveChild Advocacy Center in Barnstable, Mass.

And then her daughter Amanda moved to Oregon.

SUBMITTED PHOTO - Africa Bridge officials estimate that the Lake Oswego-based nonprofit has already helped 6,000 children in a country where 930,000 are considered vulnerable and the life expectancy is just 61 years.“She told me she would never be coming back to New England,” Saunders says. “She never wanted to endure 6-foot- high snow drifts again.”

Figuring her daughter was still too young for them to be separated very far, Saunders started looking for a nonprofit position in Oregon. Africa Bridge has a field office in the Mbeya Region of Tanzania, but its headquarters are located on the campus of Marylhurst University in Lake Oswego.

“I saw the position with Africa Bridge and I loved everything about it,” Saunders says. “It’s an amazing organization that puts its money where its mouth is. It was the perfect situation for me. Being part of the nonprofit world, it’s important for me to make a difference. It’s what I have a passion for.”

Africa Bridge shares that passion. The organization estimates it has already helped 6,000 children in a country where 930,000 are considered vulnerable and the life expectancy is just 61 years. (The term “vulnerable,” as defined by the United Nations, includes children who have been abandoned by their parents or orphaned, are living in extreme poverty, are malnourished or abused, or who are dealing with the effects of HIV and AIDS.)

“Most of the kids in Tanzania are orphans because their parents have died of AIDs,” Saunders says. “Sometimes, elderly grandparents have to care for as many as 11 kids. Tanzanian families live on less than a dollar a day, and often the children never drink milk.”

To help those families, Saunders is currently working on A Toast to Tanzania, Africa Bridge’s annual fundraising gala, which is planned for Saturday, Oct. 8, at the Multnomah Athletic Club in Portland. Tickets ($100) for “dinner, drinks and festivities” are available at africabridge.org/events/toast-tz.

Also on Saunders’ agenda is a visit to Tanzania, where she hopes to see firsthand the impact of the partnership between Africa Bridge and Rotary.

“I want to go,” she says. “I want to see in person the smiles on those kids’ faces. I want to see how Africa Bridge is changing lives.”

For more about Africa Bridge, go to www.africabridge.org.

Contact Cliff Newell at 503-636-1281 ext. 105 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..