Tanzanian Nun Thanks L.I.U. Newman Club

by Marie Elena Giossi

Father Charles Keeney, chaplain at Long Island University’s Brooklyn Campus, welcomes Sister Flora Ndwata, C.S.G., director of St. Gabriel Home and School in the Diocese of Arusha, Tanzania. Under Father Keeney’s guidance, LIU students have raised $120,000 over the last five years for St. Gabriel’s children.

One East African nun traveled over 7,000 miles this summer to express her thanks to college students in Brooklyn for making a huge impact in the lives of dozens of children in her care.
That nun is Sister Flora Ndwata, C.S.G., director of St. Gabriel Home and School in the Diocese of Arusha, in northern Tanzania, East Africa. Run by the Sisters of St. Gemma Galgani, an order dedicated to assisting imprisoned women and children, St. Gabriel’s was established through private donations in 2003 to care for “prison children,” whose mothers are detained in the city jail.
Last week, Sister Flora visited Brooklyn and St. Gabriel’s long-distance supporters, especially the Long Island University (LIU) school community, and in particular, Father Charles Keeney, LIU’s chaplain and faculty advisor to the Newman Club.
“In the last five years, Long Island University students have raised a total of $120,000 to help continue the home and build up the school,” said Father Keeney, who noted that the LIU Newman Club spearheaded the fundraising efforts for St. Gabriel’s children. This past year, the club bought a new school bus for the children at a cost of about $27,000, he said.
At a special reception hosted by LIU’s Dean of Students, Kim Williams, on Aug. 17, Modest J. Mero, a representative of the Tanzanian Ambassador to the U.N., and Congressman Ed Towns honored Sister Flora and the LIU community for their efforts on behalf of Tanzanian children.
It was the children who Sister Flora missed most on a recent morning in the all-too-quiet rectory of St. Augustine Church, Park Slope, where she stayed during part of her month-long visit to the U.S. She longed for the usual joys and challenges she’s encountered each day since this ministry began.
Back in 2003, Bishop Josephat Lebulu of Arusha asked the Sisters of St. Gemma, who were assisting mothers and children in the local jail, to give the children a real home, where they could grow, play and have happy lives.
With the help of missionary Father Jacek Rejman, S.V.D., who had been working in the jail, and financial assistance from Krystyna Pryjomko-Serafin in Poland, a residence was built. In 2006, the Sisters welcomed the first five prison children — David, Tumaini, Patrick, Teresia and Pascalina, all around age two.
As they approached school-age, the Sisters realized they needed to build a school since the nearest one was three miles away. Grants received from a German organization funded the construction of a two-room schoolhouse for nursery and kindergarten classes, followed by two more classrooms for first and second grades. Third- and fourth-grade classrooms were the most recent additions, made possible by donations from LIU.
Recognizing the larger community’s need for a school, the Sisters opened the doors to all area children, whether or not they could afford to pay tuition. Currently, 140 students are enrolled and the faculty consists of four Sisters and five laypeople, who receive nominal wages.
To keep costs low, Sisters grow their own produce and use solar and wind energy.

Raising ‘Very Good Children’

In the home and school, Sisters accept children of all faiths – mostly Christians and Muslims. “Their parents appreciate what we are doing for them. We are trying our best to help them know good from bad and they are becoming very good children,” she said.
So far, three children have gone home with their mothers. But some, whose mothers are serving life sentences, will remain in the Sisters’ care until adulthood.
As a result, the home has expanded into two, single-sex, dormitory-style rooms, where 15 children, ages two to nine, currently reside. Seven Sisters, whose ages range from 27 to 67, live in an adjacent convent.
“I take the kids back to visit their mamas in jail. I buy little gifts of soap or oil and give it to the children to give their mothers,” Sister Flora said.
With no financial support from the government thus far, Sister Flora said, “we’re struggling but Father Charlie (Keeney) is helping us very much.”
Father Keeney first learned about St. Gabriel’s on a trip to Arusha with LIU students and a professor in 2006. “By the grace of God, I met Father Jacek on the last day of my trip. He told me about this program and I really felt a call to help.
“When I returned, I spoke to the members of the LIU Newman Club and told them about the terrible situation in the city jail and how little children were forced to spend time there,” he said.  Like Father Keeney, the college students felt called to help.
Since then, the Newman Club has organized several successful fundraisers and been recognized for its work by the diocesan Propagation of the Faith Office and LIU’s Student Government Association.
Fundraising efforts continue this fall with the sixth annual Rock-A-Thon and a dinner at the Immaculate Conception Center, Douglaston, on Nov. 11. Tickets are $100 and they may be reserved by calling 917-757-8862.
Father Keeney, who returned to Arusha in 2008 to see the progress being made, recently announced that the Newman Club is undertaking a $50,000 fundraising project to build a 20-bed volunteer center in Arusha. The plan is for students to provide their time and talents firsthand.
Fostering opportunities for young people to serve their neighbors abroad, Father Keeney said, “is part of teaching them to be global citizens.”
Donations for St. Gabriel’s Home and School may be sent to Father Keeney at St. Augustine Rectory, 116 Sixth Ave., Brooklyn, N.Y. 11217. Checks should be written to Long Island University.