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A Darien teenager is trying to save her 'African starfish'

Updated 11:18 am, Friday, February 22, 2013
  • Left, Ashley Holmer, founder and director of the Red Sweater Project, which will benefit from the Girl Rising event in March; center, Ann Wells, founder and director of Unite the World with Africa; and right, Kim Merriman, managing director of Unite, pose with children in Tanzania during a visit in 2012. Photo: Contributed Photo
    Left, Ashley Holmer, founder and director of the Red Sweater Project, which will benefit from the Girl Rising event in March; center, Ann Wells, founder and director of Unite the World with Africa; and right, Kim Merriman, managing director of Unite, pose with children in Tanzania during a visit in 2012. Photo: Contributed Photo

 

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The story goes that one day, thousands of starfish washed upon shore during a wicked storm. Without water, surely they would slowly die.

A young girl, walking along the water's edge, came upon the starfish and without hesitation, started to throw them back into the water, saving them, one by one.

People from the town looked on and in time, an elderly man approached her as she was tossing the starfish back into the water, and asked what she was doing; surely she must know that she wouldn't be able to save them all. What she was doing wouldn't make a difference; there simply was no way.

Of course, the girl told the man as she tossed another one into the waves, but I made a difference to that one.

With the simplest of responses, the man joined her, inspired by what she had said. The other onlookers joined in, and in time, the starfish were saved.

Kiera Quinn is that girl along the shore and her starfish are the people of Tanzania.

Three years ago, Kiera, then a seventh-grader from Darien, became interested in Unite the World with Africa, a local nonprofit that seeks to connect those who have a desire to serve in Africa with the non-government organizations that need additional support.

"If you are called and you have a heart for service, Unite will put you to work, we will help you," said Anne Wells, also from Darien, the founder and director of Unite. "We will find the match for you and that's remarkably unique."

Many of the major organizations in Africa are very "cookie cutter," according to Wells, in that they serve as a Habitat for Humanity-type organization, in which volunteers can help build houses.

"People are plugged into a hole," Wells said.

Kiera's mother, Simone Quinn, was getting involved with Unite because of her friendship with Wells.

Simone and Wells wanted to create a leg of Unite that would involve and introduce the elementary school children of Darien with the organization's goals. From this, Global Girls and Guys was created.

The idea didn't hold any water in the elementary school; they were simply too young and there wasn't enough involvement from parents, Wells said.

That's where Kiera came in. She had heard her mom and Wells talking about Unite and knew it was something she needed to get involved in.

"They told me everything about (Unite) and I don't know what it was, but immediately I felt a connection and I thought it was the most amazing thing," said Kiera, now a freshman at Darien High School. "I always wanted to get involved and help people, but I never knew how and I didn't want to just donate money because I felt like that wasn't personal enough. While I felt like that helped, I wasn't helping as much as I could."

So once presented with an opportunity to get her hands dirty, Kiera jumped.

Since the group's inception in 2010, significant money had been raised to help various projects.

The Global Girls and Guys fundraising events came in different forms. What started with $1,000-grossing bake sales evolved into movie nights and charity walks. Its latest fundraiser for the spring will be the screening of "Girl Rising," at 10 a.m. on Saturday, March 9, at the Darien Playhouse.

All of the events were wildly successful in the eyes of Wells and Kiera; each fundraiser brought in thousands of dollars, all of which go toward Unite.

Fundraising can have its challenges, though, especially for a young girl and in difficult economic times, but Kiera and the Global Girls and Guys persevered.

"We're telling them that there is nothing that you can't do to change this world, even if it means having bake sales that raise $1,000," Wells said. "They're so hyper motivated."

In the past three years, the Global Girls and Guys, still led by Kiera, has raised more than $10,000 for materials such as bed nets, which are the first line of defense against malaria in Africa, and women's health programs that include birthing kits.

Three days after the anticipated last school day in June, Kiera and 17 other Darienites will join Wells across time zones and into the bush of Tanzania to see firsthand how their efforts are benefiting the tribes.

There, she will meet her "sister," Catherine Pascali. She isn't a biological sister, but after the literacy journey that she and Kiera will go on, it will be that way; a lifelong connection will be made, according to Wells.

Kiera is a member of IDEA, which is for gifted students, and part of the program is to complete a project and present it to the other students. They were told to pick something that they were passionate about and that motivates them.

Kiera knew just what she was going to do: Global Girls and Guys.

Working with Wells, who acts as her mentor, Kiera will become pen pals with Catherine and through their writings will compose a comparison of their day-to-day activities.

"The goal of my project is to see how you can start with one person and you reach out to friends and family and your community and can grow something into this huge project," Kiera said. "Maybe you're only saving one school or one girl or one family, but you can save villages and towns."

Unite officially came to life in 2010 after Wells questioned what she, as a working suburban mother, could do to help those she had seen in African over the course of her life.

Her story starts when she was 19 and a junior in college studying anthropology and studying abroad in Africa.

In 1991, Wells returned to Africa on a luxury safari with her extended family and realized that the people of Africa had become so objectified and that the quite lavish and expensive safaris did not have much contact with the people.

"I came home and wanted to create a venture travel company where we have people doing safaris and combine that with an opportunity to be involved with the people."

After coming home and in time realizing that she wasn't quite finished with Africa yet, Wells studied journalism at the University of California-Berkeley's graduate program so that she could write and tell the stories of those who impacted her.

Getting involved with already-established organizations was not easy for the average person.

"They'll take your money but they won't put you on the front lines," Wells said. "You want to actually go and feed children, but you can't do it. The truth is that it's a pain for the NGOs over there to receive and train us because we don't fully know what's going on. You're one end of the plug and they're the other."

This is where Unite comes in, to serve as a bridge between two points.

"We're a matchmaker. We connect people with the Tanzanian-led NGOs," Wells said. "Change happens on the grassroots level."

In 2008, Wells and her husband, David, returned to Tanzania again and found their first handful of organizations with which to partner.

Wells and other members of the organization travel to Africa throughout the year. When they come home, they bring jewelry made by the Maasai women to sell in their Ashe Collection. The sale of the jewelry is for the minimal operating costs. The Maasai women are paid for their work.

Through her years and relationships formed in Africa and in the United States, Wells has taken away what truly sets Americans apart from those they help in Africa.

"The true difference between Africans and Americans is that we have no laughter," Wells said. "There's so much joy, there's so much love, there's so much laughter. People are so exuberant with their love and their gifts. We could give our money and our knowledge but we have more to learn from them. They give up their heart; when you have nothing you give everything."

mspicer@bcnnew.com;203-972-4407;twitter.com/Meg_DarienNews