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East County Wednesday, Sep. 8, 2010 7 years ago

Taking Back Lives erects first building

by: Pam Eubanks Senior Editor

MANATEE COUNTY — In the heart of the East County, a building under construction isn’t anything out of the ordinary.

But in Malawi, Africa, such a sight symbolizes hope for the future.

There, the East County-based organization Taking Back Lives is working to build a school for the community. Its first two-classroom building went up this summer in the Nkhata Bay district of Malawi, marking the beginning of a vision fulfilled.

“We worked two years to get this funding, and so many people have helped us,” said board member Dan McNeillie, who returned Aug. 25 after spending three months in Africa. “To see that so tangible in front of us — it’s hard to say in words. I was there when we put the very first (stake in). It was one little stake and a field, but it represented so much. The whole thing is surreal.”

Taking Back Lives, dedicated to improving conditions in Malawi primarily through education, has partnered with another non-profit, Ripple Africa, for the project. The United Kingdom-based organization hires local contractors for construction projects and oversees the work.

“We transfer the funding,” McNeillie said. “We provided the sand, the concrete, the timber — the nuts and bolts of the school and the salaries of the workers.”

Malawians had much of the $10,000 school building completed when McNeillie left two weeks ago, but they still were finishing up the project.

Education in Malawi, at present, has many constraints. Because the area lacks qualified teachers, children typically are taught in groups of about 80 students. Sometimes, teachers are forced to teach two classes. Most of the classes meet outside, often in places with no shade.

“I feel like it’s a catalyst, this building,” said Cassie Yoder, a Lakewood Ranch High School graduate and one of the founders of Taking Back Lives.

In addition to seeing the first school building completed this summer, McNeillie, Cassie Yoder and fellow volunteer Nina Venter also learned the efforts of their stateside team had paid off while they were in Africa. Because of votes primarily of college and high school students, Taking Back Lives was named one of the top 200 in an online contest, earning them $20,000 toward their cause.

The organization plans to use the funds to build more classroom blocks next summer.

“We were able to tell them next year we’ll be able to build two more classrooms,” Cassie Yoder said. “People (there) recognize there is an army in the U.S. helping us. They said, ‘We have hope because of them.’ That really hit home.”

The community there has already made the 40,000 bricks needed for the next structure.

“It’s obviously a community that is very excited about education and understands the importance it has on their lives,” said Kay Yoder, executive director for Taking Back Lives.

Taking Back Lives will continue its fundraising efforts throughout the year, as classrooms themselves are not Malawi’s only need. Its next event — the 2010 Sunset Walk — will be Oct. 23 (National Make A Difference Day) on Siesta Key Beach. It also will be participating in Lakewood Ranch’s Campout for a Cause event, which raises funds for local charities, and expanding that program to Cassie Yoder’s and other college campuses.

“We want that to be a long-term thing to sustain us and help other local charities in a fun atmosphere,” Kay Yoder said.

In the coming months, Taking Back Lives will implement a scholarship program for students in Malawi to attend secondary school, for which many Malawian families cannot afford to pay. A sponsorship to send a student to school for the year is about $60.

“We really want to see youth rising up and taking part, sponsoring a (student),” Cassie Yoder said. “It’s a low enough cost. Classes could sponsor (children or even groups (of friends).”

Kay Yoder said Taking Back Lives also hopes to start bringing students from the U.S. on summer trips to Malawi.

Eventually, the organization also hopes to develop a program to teach English, the official language of Malawi, as well as basic agriculture and health to improve living conditions. It also hopes to teach people trades or skills they can use to bring income to their families, McNeillie said.

For more information about Taking Back Lives, visit

Contact Pam Eubanks at [email protected].

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