At first, the King George County women went to Tanzania to see the wildlife—and they weren’t disappointed by the amazing array of elephants and wildebeests, zebras and giraffes, ostriches and albatrosses. But as Teri Priebe, a travel agent, and Paula Van Alstine, a fitness instructor, got to know the natives who took them on safari or welcomed them into their huts, they developed a strong bond with them.
“We fell in love with the people of Tanzania,” Van Alstine said. They have a “genuine loving spirit even though they have nothing, or at least what we’d consider nothing.”
Priebe agreed that the wildlife is spectacular, but it was “the people we met that brought us back.”
Meanwhile, Priebe had met Becky Van Renan, a Spotsylvania County nurse who’s led medical missions to Peru for 13 years. The two became partners to provide the same care in Tanzania. In May, they led a team of eight people into northern Africa. Local participants included the three women mentioned plus King George residents Kathy Phillips, a medical nurse, and Richard Cottrell, a dentist. Deresa Hall—a nurse practitioner who used to work with MediCorp Health System’s Mobile Health Clinic—attended from southwestern Virginia, along with two residents from North Carolina and Florida.
The medical mission lasted five days and started at the Usa River, where the group expected to see 400 people in need of medical or dental treatment. More than 2,500 showed up. Children from area schools waited in line all day. Cottrell worked in a building designated as a medical clinic, but it had a dirt floor and no electricity. He has no idea how many extractions he did, but guessed he pulled at least 100 teeth per day—while standing the whole time.
“It was fun,” he said. “I mean it was different, it was definitely harder than what I’m used to.”
The medical staff on the team worked with Tanzanian doctors to diagnose malaria, typhoid and various stomach ailments. Those without medical training distributed vitamins and worm pills; Van Renan said everyone there suffers from abdominal parasites. The people graciously received every item, the women said.
“They looked at a toothbrush like it was the greatest gift that’s ever been given,” Priebe said.
The team worked under the sponsorship of the African Transformation Embassy in Washington, D.C. Priebe used the connections she’s developed with tribal members and guides to make arrangements and to get clearance through customs. Van Renan used her experience from the Peru trips to get donations of items and money for Tanzania. She also stuffed one carry-on bag for each participant chock full of medicine.
Priebe and Van Alstine met a Tanzanian man living in Washington a few years ago. He runs a shipping business and agreed to let them fill several containers with crutches and walkers for shipment, items they couldn’t carry on the plane. The man also shipped the containers to Tanzania for free. When the group ran out of a particular item, such as the anesthetic needed when pulling teeth, Cottrell had the Tanzanian locals take him to the nearest pharmacy, where he paid for more medicine. Cottrell told the others the trip had changed him.
“The word ‘need’ is completely changed in my vocabulary,” he said. “We don’t need anything in this country. We are very fortunate to be Americans, there’s no doubt about that.”
Participants paid their own way to Tanzania. The package Priebe put together through King George Travel cost $3,900 and included a two-day safari to Lake Manyara National Park and Ngorongoro Crater.
Van Alstine told the group she’d heard from at least one local resident who didn’t approve of her trip to Africa. The woman told her that there are plenty of poor and hungry people in the United States who need help. Van Alstine agreed.
The mission wasn’t a religious one or associated with any church, the women said.
“It was just human beings trying to help other human beings,” Priebe said.