Minnesota ‘saint’ gardener uses plant sales to transform lives of youngsters in Tanzania

The following appeared in the “Homes & Gardening” section of the Star Tribune on March 21, 2021.

Roseville nurse and her plant sales support a school that is raising a nation in Tanzania.

By Rohan Preston Star Tribune

In January 2017, Bethany Husby traveled with her family to Tanzania for a safari vacation that doubled as her 55th birthday celebration. Besides bonding and quality time, the group hoped to see and photograph lions, rhinos and giraffes.

But capturing charismatic megafauna was far from Husby’s only indelible experience. As she was buying stamps for a postcard to send back to America, Husby struck up a conversation with the sales clerk, a shy young man about the age of one of her three sons, who was bursting with educational dreams.

That initial chat led to a feverish correspondence, and pretty soon Husby had become a global philanthropist who uses various resources, including plant sales from her Roseville garden, to support a school that’s transforming the lives of children and families half a world away.

The school has grown rapidly, from 32 students when it opened in January 2018 to 300 today. And there are plans for it to grow further, with construction underway. The project has brought Husby deep satisfaction even as she rejected the sainthood that grateful Tanzanians wanted to bestow on her when they named the Bethany Pre and Primary School.

“It was not meant to be a mission trip, but I came home with a mission,” Husby said. “I do think that the hand of God was involved in it.”

Husby is a winner of the Star Tribune’s annual Beautiful Gardens contest, selected from more than 380 reader nominations. In this year of pandemic and racial justice reckoning, the contest was tweaked a bit. Readers were invited to nominate gardens that are beautiful in spirit and contribute to the greater good.

DAVID JOLES • DAVID.JOLES@STARTRIBUNE.COM
A landscaped stream flows through a garden pond at the home of nurse-turned-international-philanthropist Bethany Husby.

A minister’s daughter who grew up to become a pediatric oncology nurse in the bone marrow transplant unit at the University of Minnesota Hospital, Husby lives a life of caring by profession and disposition. She and her husband, Paul Husby, a retired commercial property manager, tend to half-a-dozen garden areas around their handsomely appointed home just blocks from HarMar Mall. The front gets full sun, but the backyard is shaded by majestic 120-year-old oaks and includes a pond that they dug by hand.

Along a back border, Bethany grows more than 100 varieties each of daylilies and hostas, her biggest sellers. But she also splits astilbes, echinacea and waterlilies. In the past, she raised money from her plant sales for Be the Match. In four years, she’s raised about $75,000 to support the school.

“Plants thrive best when they’re divided,” she said. “The flowers are a way to tell people about this worthy cause. When people hear about it, they also donate.”

Modest dreams

By American standards, the Tanzanian sales clerk’s dreams were modest and achievable. Working in Arusha, about three hours away from his family, Emmanuel Boaz sent much of his $100 monthly pay home to support his parents and, especially, his younger siblings. But his real goal, which he shared with Bethany, was to start a safari company. His brother-in-law Ojung’u Samwel Mollel, who had come into some land and who lived with the family, also wanted to build a school.

When she first heard Boaz talk, Bethany wanted to help him, but she did not want to be misperceived as the rich American.

“I’m not the Bank of Tanzania,” she thought. But she gradually grew to support Boaz’s larger goals because he was, in some ways, like her. He prioritized others over himself. And she values how education transforms not just individuals, but generations and communities.

Of course, the whole enterprise is built on trust. When Bethany first met Boaz, he told her that his birthday was the next day. She gave him $20 as a gift. When she related the story of their meeting later to family, they thought that maybe she had been hoodwinked. That happens to tourists the world over.

But Bethany had a hunch that Boaz, now 29, was someone of high integrity. So she went back to the shop and asked to see his ID. He obliged. Not only was it his birthday, but he had put the modest gift toward his younger sibling’s education.

“In Tanzania, we don’t have birthday celebrations like you do in America,” Boaz said.

Mushrooming dreams

That trust is the linchpin of an international effort that has seen the dreams mushroom. What started as a school with one building has turned into five, including facilities and a small library. The school is growing in the community of Kisongo, which is on the outskirts of Arusha, Tanzania’s fourth-largest city and one with scant infrastructure and modest resources.

Bethany’s contributions, and those of her supporters, go far in such a place. So she celebrates when a water tank is put in or when the school is able to provide more scholarships to children or when they are able to buy books for kids in every grade.

Much of this work is funded by growing flowers in Rose­ville. But she also dips into her family’s resources.

“The older I get, the more I realize I don’t really need to be buying things,” Bethany said. “I’m on the backside of my life. Just building this school, seeing something that transforms lives, is more fun than buying a new boat or car.”

Sometimes her plans surprise husband Paul. Like when he found out that a school structure being erected will have more floors than he initially thought.

“It didn’t cost much more to add a floor or two,” she said.

“It’s her passion and she spends every waking moment on it,” he said. “I’m happy to support her.”

The country that became Tanzania was colonized by the Germans in 1880 and became a British protectorate after World War I. It gained independence in 1964 under the leadership of legendary statesman Julius Nyerere but is still a young nation.

Taking wing

Bethany recently flew to Tanzania, her fifth trip since 2017. A lot has changed in that time, not least of all the global pandemic that delayed her visit. There’s a new headmaster to meet. In September, Mollel, the school’s founding father, passed away at 42 after fighting acute leukemia for six months.

But the work continues through Heart to Care Tanzania, a nonprofit the Husbys started. And dreams are becoming reality. Boaz has started his safari company, Boaz Safari Adventures, which has committed to giving 50% of its profits to Bethany Pre and Primary. The kids are learning English, preparing for life in a global world.

“Bethany is like an angel to us,” Boaz said.

When Bethany and Boaz first met, she noticed that he covered his mouth when he laughed. He was insecure about his teeth, which were discolored because of too much fluoride in the water. Bethany could relate. As a child, she, too, had dental issues. She helped him find a dentist in Arusha to correct that problem. (That dentist, Dr. Arlene of Divinegrace dental clinic, also became an “angel” supporter of the school.)

“She gave me my smile back,” Boaz said.

Of course, Bethany is doing a lot more than that. She’s giving children in the pocket of a developing nation opportunities to dream.

Boaz is the one who wanted to canonize Bethany, while she’s still living, no less, by naming the school Saint Bethany. She demurred.

“She’s been such a blessing to us, and we thank God for her,” he said. “How can this woman from so far away in the U.S. work so hard to build a school for the people of Kisongo? I have nothing with which to repay, so we said, let’s use her name as something we will always remember.”

Rohan Preston • 612-673-4390

@rohanpreston

Roseville woman plants flower that blooms into a school in Africa

The following is an article written by Vonny Rohloff that appeared in the Roseville Review on Tue, 09/17/2019

Roseville resident Bethany Husby with students at the Bethany Pre and Primary School in Kisongo, Tanzania, Africa. (courtesy of Bethany Husby)

Ordinary people can sometimes do extraordinary things — such as Bethany Husby, a Roseville wife, mother and career nurse; an ordinary woman who started a school in Africa. 

From a plant sale in Roseville, Minnesota, grew an elementary school in Kisongo, Tanzania.

The story starts in January 2017 when Husby and her family were on a safari vacation in Tanzania. 

“I met a young man, Emmanuel Boaz, in the gift shop at one of the lodges where we stayed,” she says. 

He wouldn’t smile with his teeth showing, so after striking up a friendship, Husby helped obtain dental care for him. She says she remembers being bullied in grade school for her teeth, which were not improved until she was 17. 

“I knew that if I helped him with his teeth and smile, it would improve his self-confidence,” she says. “His smile now lights up the room and his self-confidence has surged.”

Their friendship grew and she learned that Boaz and his brother-in-law, Ojwang Samwel, had a dream: to build a quality and affordable English-speaking school for boys and girls at the far end of their village. 

“I have always felt education was important,” Husby says. She had a degree of dyslexia that she had to overcome through all her education. “I always knew I had to work harder than most people in school for good grades. Luckily I had teachers who encouraged me and family and friends who were supportive.”

Says Husby, “Ojwang and Emmanuel’s passion for this project seeped into my pores and soon I shared their dream and looked within myself for ways I could help.”

With the help of her family she founded a nonprofit organization, Heart To Care Tanzania, to raise money for the school. In the spring of 2017, Husby had a plant sale. 

“I divided and potted over 5,000 plants from my gardens for the sale,” she says. “We made $16,000 and had a benefit concert and raised another $1,000.”

Beginning to grow

She sent enough money in the fall of 2017 to start construction of a school in the small village of Kisongo, on land Ojwang inherited from his father. “The school is very important to the families in this small village,” Husby explains. “Parents are eager to send their children to an English-speaking school, where all subjects are taught and tested in English.”

Whereas the Tanzanian government does run primary schools, the instruction is in Swahili. Then, the classroom instruction and testing changes to English in the government-run secondary schools, leaving many children poorly prepared for their next level of education.

Within three months, locals constructed the first school classrooms. By January 2018, the doors of Bethany Pre and Primary School for underprivileged children opened its doors to 32 children.

The class sizes at government schools are much larger, with as many as 60 children in one classroom. “Our class sizes are smaller and the daily English immersion is very beneficial to the children, especially as they prepare for secondary school,” says Husby. “All the children at Bethany Pre and Primary School are being given a head start in life.”

Husby had a second plant sale in 2018 in which she netted $20,000; she then added a garden party and a baking class. With these additional fundraising efforts, another school building was added and a school bus was purchased.  

“As a result of these efforts, we built another school building, washrooms and had 156 children enrolled for the January 2019 school year,” Husby says. “I take no administrative costs — all proceeds go directly to the children’s school.”

With tons of energy and a stick-to-it spirit, Husby says she believes “that with God all things are possible,” a belief she garnered from her pastor father. She also gives credit to her family: husband Paul, sons Joseph, Erik and David and daughter-in-law Katy.  

“I have a very supportive family,” says the 57-year-old. Her husband has a degree in business administration and runs the finance side of the nonprofit organization. Two of her sons studied computer programming and helped create the website, www.HeartToCareTanzania.org. The website describes the program and encourages donor participation. 

Husby’s sister-in-law, Jean Milton, also is to be commended as she’s the one who planned and sponsored that first trip to Africa and has helped at all of the fundraising events.

Support into the future

Support for the school continues to grow. Falcon Heights Elementary School fourth graders began a pen pal program, exchanging letters with students at Bethany Pre and Primary School this year. 

And then the same fourth graders created a “school store,” making and selling their goods to other students at their school. Bethany reports they earned $357.34 and donated all the proceeds to the Tanzanian school. “The Falcon Heights students were so proud.”

This summer Husby had a garden party benefit in her family’s backyard, which included a picnic buffet supper, music, silent auction and cake walk. Friends and family enjoyed the perfect summer evening event and were updated with a progress report on the school.

Pamrell Larsen, who became acquainted with Husby through a friend and plants, came from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to attend the party. 

“I call her my angel,” Larsen says of Husby. In fact, Larsen and her family were so impressed with Husby’s school project that they decided to fund the construction of a library. The Larsen Family Library Building is nearly complete and will add to the school complex.

Although the school is up and running, says Husby, “We are still in urgent need of support.”

More children need to be supported with tuition and the school needs a fence, which is a government requirement for the safety of students. Also needed are more electrical wiring and light fixtures, additional tables and chairs in the community center, as well as bus repairs and ongoing maintenance.

Husby is already preparing for her next plant sale in May 2020, by collecting plants from friends’ gardens. 

“My plans are to oversee the charity and school as long as I am still able — hopefully another 30 years!” she says.

As Husby says on her website, Heart to Care Tanzania views education as the key to empowering a new generation to have better lives and to foster a more just and sustainable world.

Husby went to college for nursing and has worked as a pediatric nurse in bone marrow transplant for 33 years. “I continue to work,” she says, “but my off time is devoted to this new passion, which is close to my heart. I can help children in another way now. I can help them receive a quality and nurturing education.”

–Vonny Rohloff

And so it begins: Supplies purchased, delivered and ground is broken!!!

Monday, September 11th

Emanuel and Arlene go to the bank, and then to the store to purchase supplies.

Tuesday, September 12th

The purchased supplies of sand and bricks (cement blocks) are delivered to the site.

Items delivered and costs:

Bricks 2000 — $1,378

Cement 100 bags — $551 

Steel 50 pieces, 10mm — $264, Steel 30 pieces, 6mm — $76, Binding wire 10 pieces — $14

Nails — $15

2 truck loads of sand — $368

Transportation — $18

Emanuel has to pay in cash each day the bills for the day. He is keeping fabulous records!