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.
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."
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.
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.
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