Artist Stephanie Schlatter lives in Grand Rapids, and as creator of the "On the Michigan Wine Trail" painting series, spends much of her time roaming the vineyards of northern Michigan.
Yet, when she closes her eyes, she often finds herself thousands of miles away — in Ethiopia.
"Going to Ethiopia changes you," said Schlatter, who will head to the African nation for the seventh time this January. "It changed me, and I can never forget those kids, the imbalance of basic human rights."
An art odyssey
Like most tales involving the embrace of a life's mission, how the western Michigan artist became wrapped up in the plight of youngsters continents away is a long and winding one.
As a 20-something backpacking her way around the globe, Schlatter marveled at the children she encountered while traveling abroad and felt compelled to help them, but wasn't sure how.
"The years went on, and my passport stamps added up — as did my love of art," she wrote in her blog at http://stephanieschlatterartblog.com. "Art changed my life; it has that power. What would happen if I could give children in the developing world exposure to the world of art … and if that art could help support their education?"
In 2007, those musings coalesced into Art Aid for Tesfa, an arm of the nonprofit Tesfa Foundation.
After journeying to Ethiopia, determined find a way to help through art, a confluence of events led Schlatter to Tesfa Foundation Executive Director Dana Roskey. The former teacher from Minnesota had found a new calling after his Ethiopian-American fiancée, Leeza — whose dream was to someday return to her homeland and give back through education — died in a car accident.
When Roskey traveled to Ethiopia to oversee efforts to establish a school there in her memory, "he thought he'd be back in six months," said Schlatter. "Nine years later, he is still there, and this has become his life work."
Schlatter began volunteering at Roskey's school after visiting the facility and becoming convinced that Roskey was running an "honest, effective, high-quality" nonprofit. Her trips to Ethiopia since have ranged in length from two weeks to two months, during which time she works hands-on with children.
To date, the Tesfa Foundation — which derives its moniker from "hope" in Amharic, the official language of Ethiopia — has constructed eight schools in and around Addis Ababa, the country's capital, to bolster 4- to 6-year-olds' academic skills.
According to Schlatter, only 3 percent of Ethiopians receive early childhood education. Government-provided public school doesn't start until age 7, and even then, the classrooms there are 80 children to a classroom, she said. Private schools are few, and out of reach financially for even middle class Ethiopian families. By seventh-grade, lessons are in English, so if the kids don't know the language by then, they're unable to continue, she said.
The government helps the Tesfa Foundation identify "the poorest of the poor" children to assist, and "there's a lot of pride that the whole community takes in the fact that their children are in school," said Schlatter. "So the kids … they kind of hang on every word you have to say. They really are like sponges, wanting to learn, and valuing that education, which makes it such a joy."
Schlatter's division of the Tesfa Foundation helps fund the kids' early schooling and provide students in the Tesfa schools with previously unheard of artistic education opportunities.
With its agricultural economy decimated by drought, famine and war, the African nation reportedly is among the lowest in the world in per capita income, and nearly a quarter of its population of 91 million is unemployed, while two-thirds are illiterate. It's not surprising, then, that most of the children have never so much as held a crayon before encountering Art Aid for Tesfa.
In a video Schlatter filmed to promote the initiative, she recalled how, given a blank sheet of white paper for the first time and encouraged to color, the kids filled only a minuscule chunk of the page, determined to ration a resource — paper — considered precious and rare.
"The concept of art is foreign to them," she said, "but the concept of creativity isn't."
Like most nonprofits, the Tesfa Foundation is always in need of two basics: funding and volunteers.
"We have very little overhead, lean budgets and depend a great deal on volunteers," said Schlatter. "We need people willing to go work in schools in Ethiopia, but for those U.S.-bound folks, a big part of volunteering ends up being fundraising. So people with generous hearts who believe all kids have a right to education and are willing to put time and/or funds behind that belief are so very appreciated."
In that vein, Schlatter hopes that those touched by the Ethiopians' children's plight — but for whom jetting to Africa is not a viable option — will consider a means of assisting that's a bit closer to home.
Every year since returning from her first trip to Ethiopia, Schlatter has held a fundraiser to benefit the kids, and this year is no exception: The sixth iteration is set for Nov. 9 at the Betty Van Andel Opera Center in Grand Rapids. The 6-10 p.m. event — described as "a lively, fun night of colorful art, funky music and tasty food, wine and beer" — will include hors d'oeuvres by Grand Rapids chef Tommy Fitzgerald, authentic Ethiopian cuisine from local restaurants and desserts from Amore Trattoria Italiana. Wine from Black Star Farms and beer from Founders Brewing Co. will be served.
At a wine label painting station, guests can design souvenir labels to adorn bottles of Black Star Farms wine, and labels sporting art by Ethiopian children will be available. Proceeds from wine purchased during the event go to the Tesfa Foundation. According to the organization, it takes as little as $21 per month to educate one Ethiopian child.
Art by Schlatter and Ethiopian children also will be for sale. Afro Zuma, a 12-piece horn and percussion group, will provide live musical entertainment through African funk and Afro-beat music.
The evening's live and silent auctions will feature numerous items supplied by Michigan wineries, such as accommodations at the Inn at Black Star Farms and at the cabin at Silver Leaf Vineyards; tasting and small plates at Left Foot Charley; private tours and tastings at Chateau Chantal and Brys Estate Vineyard & Winery; wine from Chateau de Leelanau; and a magnum of L. Mawby Blanc de Blanc, auctioned with a signed, framed poster of one of Schlatter's works that includes a poem by Larry Mawby himself.
The admission cost — which includes food and a couple of drinks — is $50 per person. A cash bar will be available. Tickets can be purchased online at http://www.artaidfortesfa.org or by contacting Melissa Timmer, the event's co-chair, at (616) 915-4222. Anyone interested in sponsorships or supplying auction donations also can contact Timmer.
The Betty Van Andel Opera Center is located at 1320 E. Fulton in Grand Rapids.
The Tesfa Foundation is in the process of merging with Ethiopia Reads, a literacy nonprofit of which Roskey is also executive director, and will soon adopt that name. Art Aid for Tesfa, in turn, will become Ethiopia Reads Art Aid. For more information, visit http://www.tesfa.org, http://www.artaidfortesfa.org or http://www.facebook.com/ArtAidforTesfa.
Schlatter chronicles her experiences on her blog at http://stephanieschlatterartblog.com. She also posts videos about Art Aid for Tesfa and on location in Ethiopia on YouTube.com under the username "stephanieschlat."
Photos courtesy Stephanie Schlatter.
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