To celebrate her 70th birthday, Meg Vermillion traveled from Ellison Bay to Tanzania in East Africa to help build the foundation for a new medical clinic and install water retention systems. But in some respects, the woman who chose to wield a shovel as she launched her eighth decade began the journey in 1975.
That year she found herself in Waukesha as a single mom with two children. After she learned of an opportunity to work on a community project in England, she borrowed the money to get there. “When Cinderella is invited to the ball,” Vermillion laughed, “she isn’t going to miss it!” She and her kids spent four years in England.
After putting herself through college, Vermillion worked as a social worker, and her journey traveled full circle after she became a grandmother. Seven years ago, Vermillion began a tradition of taking each of her four granddaughters at age 13 on a volunteer trip to a Native American reservation. The first granddaughter, who had traveled to a Hopi reservation, this summer decided to volunteer in Costa Rica.
“We need to create global citizens,” Vermillion maintains. “We need to plant the seeds.”
And some of the seeds sprouted within Vermillion herself. Working through the St. Paul-based Global Citizens Network, she and her husband David took two 15-day volunteer trips, the first during July of 2009 to Chirapa, a village in Peru.
She was part of a group of 13 who lived and worked with the villagers using hand tools to build a lunchroom for students at the school, and during her stay experienced “full-blown culture shock.” Living accommodations, dining, and personal hygiene all required an adjustment in attitude: sleeping on a homemade bed; eating “plantains cooked in 10 different ways – a part of every meal every day;” taking “trips to the squatting toilet;” and bathing in public springs.
But Vermillion found both the work and the personal relationships fulfilling; in July of 2010, she and her husband took a second trip, this time to northwest Tanzania in the hills behind Lake Victoria.
The people of Tanzania were much poorer than those in Peru, she learned. “One mass of humanity! Roads lined with people walking, carrying [burdens] on their backs or head, women working in the fields or washing their clothes by hand in polluted streams, too many shacks too close together.”
But at the same time she found “Tanzanians the most beautiful of all Africans. They are playful, have great humor, and are never without a smile, the most peaceful of all African people.”
Vermillion was impressed by a non-profit organization, Community Solutions for Africa’s Development (COSAD). Co-founded by executive director Smart Baitani (who was born in Tanzania and educated in the U.S.), COSAD takes a “teach a man (or woman) to fish” approach to their projects which include: Sewing Singers through which women are given treadle machines and trained to sew school uniforms for students to attend school; One Woman, One Goat, providing women with animals to raise for milk and food; Nurse’s School financial support for medical training; a micro-loan program for small businesses; and the Imuka Singers and Dancers, a touring group that earns money to support community projects.
From Vermillion’s experiences, she has gained “immeasurable personal growth, greater adaptation abilities, an interest in the richness of human stories, and an expanded appreciation of the gifts of the people of these countries.”
Will she ever do another trip? She doesn’t think so. “I saw it. I get it,” she said. “Now is the time for action. That’s why when I learned that the Imuka Singers and Dancers were trying to get to Minneapolis, it was natural to say, ‘You get to Minnesota, and I’ll get you to Door County.’”
Because American dollars buy far more in third-world countries, she plans to redirect the money she would spend on airfare and program fees to other purposes, such as underwriting (with the help of friends) the local performance of Imuka on July 9 at the Door Community Auditorium with all profits returned to fund programs in Tanzania.
“My wish,” she said, “would be that everyone could have a volunteer experience in a developing country. But if they can’t, that they would consider sending a grandchild or another young person. It will develop their character in a way that will influence their decisions for the rest of their lives.”