Helping the kids: Area native volunteers at center in Tanzania

Since August, Bishop Guilfoyle alumni Patrick “Pat” Irwin Jr., Class of 2013, has expanded his horizons through his volunteer work at Mother’s Mercy Children’s Center in the Malala Village of Arusha, Tanzania.

What he first intended to be a two-month visit to Tanzania to volunteer at a hospital, turned in a different direction, he said. Shortly before his departure, the Dickinson College Biology/Pre-med graduate decided not to pursue medical school. At Dickinson he also played football.

“I immediately fell in love with the children and was inspired by the work being done at Mother’s Mercy,” he stated via email. So inspired that he enlisted the financial assistance of his family and started a GoFund me page in the hopes of enhancing the children’s care with better accommodations and food.

The children’s center is in an area of extreme poverty, he said, where many children can’t go to the “free” public school system as many schools require parental contributions. To assist these impoverished children, Irwin has set up a sponsor program called the “Watoto Wa Baba Simba Education initiative.”

“Watoto Wa Baba Simba is Swahili for Father Simba’s kids,” he explained. “It is named that because the children at the center call me ‘Baba Simba.’ Simba, which is ‘lion’ in Swahili, came about because I often pretend I was a lion when playing with the children. Then, as time went on, this changed to Baba Simba because I started developing a quasi-father/child relationship with the children, many of whom are being raised by single moms if they have any parents at all.”

Long-time family friend Joseph Dumm of Holli-daysburg visited Irwin on a recent trip to Africa.

“I found Seth (Emmanuel original center founder) to be very sincere in his efforts … neither Pat nor Seth are compensated in any way. All donated funds go directly to the center. One of the things they do for these children is feed them every day. It is very basic but very important to these kids. Pat has secured funding to feed these kids for at least the next year. Very, very impressive,” Dumm said, adding he plans to continue to help the center.

“… This experience has dramatically altered my perspective on the world,” Irwin stated. Living in a hostel afforded him an opportunity to meet people from other cultures, as young Europeans often take a “gap year” to travel and volunteer.

Irwin, too, has benefited from his experience with the children and the other volunteers.

“Although I expected to encounter different life perspectives, I did not expect to learn so much about the culture of Europe and was surprised to learn that it is not nearly as close to that of America as we would like to think,” he stated. “The conversations I had in my hostel with people from all different countries has truly been one of the greatest experiences.”

Irwin said an average of 15-20 people stay at the hostel at one time, with three people sharing a room. He’s met people from Scotland, England, France, Spain Italy, Brazil, Panama, Japan, Australia, Holland and Denmark.

“It truly is incredible how much I have learned from conversations with all of them and is one of the experiences I will cherish the most from this experience,” he stated.

For the first time, he spent the Christmas and New Year’s holidays away from his parents Pat and Kim Irwin and his siblings Amanda, 21, Andrew, 20, and Emma, 17, his paternal grandparents Tom and Lenora Irwin and maternal grandparents Jerry Shaner and Bonnie Shaner. The family, Irwin said, plans to visit him this month. Then, he plans on traveling through Europe accepting the many invitations that have been extended to him.

When he returns to Altoona, Irwin hopes to establish a 501(c)3 so he can continue helping the center and start additional educational, mental health/substance abuse, healthcare, and sustainability projects elsewhere in Europe.

Mirror staff writer Patt Keith is at 949-7030.