Single traveling mom Sue Rohrer credits her trips to Africa with boosting her self-confidence and restoring her passion.
Sue Rohrer, a divorced mother of three and “regular person,” Rohrer hails from Old Greenwich, Conn. Her desire to create a new independent life post-divorce prompted her first trip to Africa. She was enamored with the landscape and overwhelmed by the poverty, particularly in the villages of Tanzania. What troubled her most was the children’s lack of access to education, often simply because they lacked the resources to purchase a $14 school uniform.
Thus was born Children of Tanzania , a registered 501(c) (3) established to aid needy children. The organization’s emphasis is on educating children. It started six years ago as a project to supply school uniforms. It still supplies school uniforms, but now it also operates a lunch program that feeds up to 400 children a day, is building a second water well and a classroom and furnishes text books for all grades at Tunami Junior School as well as sponsoring students in university, secondary and primary school.
TravelingMom founder Kim Orlando sat down with Rohrer to discuss what it’s like traveling to Africa with and without her children, and what effect her travels and newfound passion have had on her family.
TMOM: What made you decide to travel to Africa?
SUE ROHRER: I’d been curious about Africa since I was a child. Something about it just drew me, and as clichéd as it sounds, I just knew I needed to be there.
TMOM: Was it your first time traveling overseas?
SUE ROHRER: No. Before I was divorced, my husband and I traveled all the time. Five-star vacations to Europe, mostly. Very different from what I’m doing now.
TMOM: Would your kids travel with you?
SUE ROHRER: Not back then. We’d leave them at home with a sitter and go on our own.
TMOM: Tell me about your kids.
SUE ROHRER: I have three. My older two are in their 20s and in college and my youngest is 8. It was a connection I had through the kids, actually, that prompted my first trip to Africa.
TMOM: What sort of connection?
SUE ROHRER: A very good friend who I’d met through my children’s school told me that he was taking his family to Tanzania on safari and that there were three extra spots in his group. He asked if my two older kids and I would like to go. I’d been separated for a couple months at that point and was looking for a way to gain control of my life. So I jumped at the chance.
TMOM: And what did you come away with after that first trip?
SUE ROHRER: It gave me so much I’d managed to lose during my marriage. It reminded me that I’m capable and strong. I came home feeling very empowered, inspired and recharged.
TMOM: Did you get a sense of Africa’s hardships?
SUE ROHRER: Not so much during my first trip. On the trip to Tanzania, and again the next year when we toured Botswana, my kids and I were on high-end safaris looking at the animals. I didn’t have a clue about the people or their plights.
TMOM: When did that change?
SUE ROHRER: Three years after my safari in Botswana, a friend and I returned to Tanzania. It was then that I started looking at the various tribal cultures. I was shocked at how many of the children were not in school. I asked around and learned that for many of them, it was simply because they couldn’t afford the uniforms.
TMOM: How did you feel about that situation?
SUE ROHRER: I found it very troubling. That’s when I decided to get involved.
TMOM: What did you do?
SUE ROHRER: My friend and I returned to the States and began hosting cocktail parties to raise money. But we worried about it actually getting to the kids were we to simply send it. So we went back to Tanzania, targeted specific kids who were in need, had the uniforms made and personally delivered them.
TMOM: Was this a one time thing or did it lead to other projects?
SUE ROHRER: It led to the start of my organization, actually. It’s a 501(c) (3) charities called Children of Tanzania.
TMOM: What sorts of projects have you taken on?
SUE ROHRER: Over the past six years, we’ve provided more than 3,000 uniforms, built water wells (freeing girls from the task of hauling water and to provide safe drinking water), sponsored students in University, secondary and primary boarding schools, built a classroom in a Maasai village school, implemented a lunch program feeding 400 children a day and provided countless school supplies and books.
TMOM: What made you choose Tanzania?
SUE ROHRER: It was the first place I went in Africa and I simply fell in love with it. The people are amazing. Even though they live with tremendous poverty they are joyous, hopeful and full of such sense of community. My job is easier because the people I work with are so open to sharing their world and at the same time curious about me.
TMOM: I know the kids traveled with you to Africa on two safaris, but have they gone with you to Tanzania since you started your foundation?
SUE ROHRER: Yes, I have been so fortunate to have both of my older children travel with me to see and help with our projects. My son was put to work the summer of 2007 measuring children for uniforms and this past summer it was great to watch my daughter at our lunch program giving the lunch ladies a break and serving the children there hot meals.
TMOM: Your youngest too?
SUE ROHRER: So far she has not.
TMOM: So you’d say 8 is too young to travel to Africa?
SUE ROHRER: Well, every child is different, but there are some typically 8-year-old behaviors that just won’t fly during such a long trip. You can’t be tired, you can’t be whining, you can’t be saying you’re thirsty in a village where there is no water.
TMOM: When is your next trip to Tanzania?
SUE ROHRER: This coming summer. My youngest will be 9 and she will be coming this year. She is very excited that it is finally her turn.
TMOM: In the past you left your youngest at home. How do you feel about that?
SUE ROHRER: Once I’m on the plane, I’m fine. But the weeks leading up to my trips are difficult trying to get every detail arranged. Driving to the airport I always have tears running down my face. But she is well taken care of and knowing that has freed me to do this.
TMOM: How long are you usually gone?
SUE ROHRER: A few weeks to a month, which I know must seem like forever to a child. And since I’m a very hands-on mom, it’s not easy to leave.
TMOM: How do you make
things easier on your daughter when you travel?
SUE ROHRER: I try to structure it so that her daily routine stays as consistent as possible. And we do a lot of talking about where I’m going and the work I’m doing before I leave. In the past she has stayed with sitters, her older sister and my Mother. Last summer she stayed with her Dad. Still, I always have this thought at the last minute – like, what kind of mother am I?
TMOM: And what’s the answer to that?
SUE ROHRER: Honestly, as hard as it is to leave her, I think I’m a better mother for my travels. I’m teaching her that her mother isn’t just a mom. That as a mom, you can have your own dreams, your own passion, and your own work and still be a good mother.
TMOM: What benefits have your kids gleaned from your travels to Africa?
SUE ROHRER: I’ve been able to open their eyes to people and cultures completely different from their own, which I hope leads to tolerance and the idea that there is not just one right way to live. I also want to impart to them that due to our amazing blessings it is our job to give back in some way to a world in such great need.
TMOM: When you first started traveling to Africa, did anyone in your life think you were crazy?
SUE ROHRER: No, and that’s something I love about my friends and family. They all said, “Go for it. Raise the money. Get personally involved.”
TMOM: So for the moms out there who might be thinking about doing something like this…do you have any advice for them?
SUE ROHRER: Go and try it. See if it fits. See how rewarding it is to help people in need and watch the gifts that come to your family through that generosity.
TMOM: Have you received those kinds of gifts from your own kids?
SUE ROHRER: Definitely. With the older kids, it’s their charity work. They’ve traveled to Thailand, South Africa, and Costa Rica, all in the spirit of volunteerism. My son just finished a year at Rhodes University in South Africa. My little one – well, when they ask her at school to write a report about something she thinks is important, she writes about my work in Africa. That to me is a gift.
TMOM: A lot of moms out there might read this and think wow, this is great for Sue Rohrer, but I’m just a regular person. I couldn’t do something this adventurous. What would you say to those moms?
SUE ROHRER: That I’m a regular person too. I have no special skills that qualified me for this job, but it is amazing that when your heart is touched what a huge difference you can make.
TMOM: So all this travel to Africa…how has it changed you?
SUE ROHRER: I’m a completely different person. Before I began this journey, I didn’t know who I was. I was so busy being the wife and the mom that I’d completely lost my purpose and passion. My travels have restored that. They’ve deepened my connections to all people, taught me to be truly thankful for all that I have and heightened my sense of spirituality. Really, Africa has changed everything.