In 1992 I left my home in Arusha, Tanzania, to attend a secondary boarding school. I did not know I was about to meet a Lutheran volunteer who would change my life forever.
Her name was Ruth Klavano, but we called her “Mama Ruth.” Ruth arrived in Tanzania to teach English at our small Lutheran school. A resident of Washington state, she had never been to Tanzania and hardly spoke Swahili. Since I knew a little English, Ruth and I quickly became friends. As a student leader, I took it upon myself to help her communicate with the other pupils. Because of my assistance, Ruth agreed to tutor me – even on weekends – and our friendship grew because we needed each other.
Growing up in Arusha, I’d always been curious about the world beyond my region. I studied maps, read geography books and followed events unfolding around the globe. I knew I wanted to travel and see the world.
What I did not know is God, with Mama Ruth as a vessel, had other plans for me. Ruth asked if I was interested in joining her in Vancouver, Washington, to attend high school. I jumped at this without the blink of an eye. In February 1994, after months of paperwork, I left my parents and six siblings to join Ruth in America.
The transition from a secondary school in Tanzania to a U.S. high school was not smooth. I struggled to keep pace with schoolwork, learning English, making friends and finding food similar to what I ate at home. Throughout these difficulties, I reminded myself I was beyond blessed by this opportunity. I knew success would come only through hard work and perseverance.
Because of poor language skills, I was placed in English as a Second Language. I knew I could do better. To challenge myself, I moved to advanced English, forcing me to learn the language quickly to compete with other students. I am grateful today for a teacher who spotted my potential and saw to it I was treated equally.
Simply coming to this country was not my only dream. I wanted to be the first in my family to earn a university degree. I wanted to show my siblings if you work hard you can achieve your dreams. I wanted to show all God’s children have the potential if given equal opportunities. On a trip to Disneyland, Ruth and I stopped by California Lutheran University. On that beautiful afternoon, I saw students playing soccer. And, after a short meeting with the international students adviser, I decided to attend Cal Lutheran for under graduate studies. The university’s mission, the size of the student body and the amazing professors and administrators made it an easy choice. At Cal Lutheran I could take advantage of the opportunities available in a small setting. I was honored to be elected student body president and am still humbled by that experience. But my biggest achievement was earning my degree, with my mother traveling over 11,000 miles to watch me receive that honor.
CLU prepared me to lead in a global society and instilled in me that learning and achievement are lifelong. In graduate school at The American University in Washington, D.C., I was introduced to Bread for the World, a faith-based nonprofit working to fight domestic and international hunger.
This was where I found my calling. At Bread for the World, I learned the causes and consequences of hunger and the pow er of ordinary citizens advocating for policies geared toward ending it.
I joined the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) in 2009 to continue the fight on a global scale. At the U.N., our goal is to make sure everyone has high-quality food to lead active, healthy lives
Throughout my life, I have been reminded often of Luke 12:48, “to whom much is given, much will be required.” God has given me more than I deserve. My encounter with the late Ruth Klavano, my time at Cal Lutheran and The American University as well as my first job at Bread for the World prepared me to undertake a vocation so close to my heart.
As a husband and the father of a 3-year-old girl, I would be heartbroken if forced to choose between feeding my daughter or providing her with an education or medical care. Millions of families make these choices daily. Conflict, climate change and economic downturn are major causes of hunger, and all are solvable. We need the political will and the commitment to influence public policy to support the poor. I am trying to do my part, and I know through collaboration and cooperation we all can achieve a world where every person is nourished body and soul.
Gabe Laizer is strategic partnerships and outreach coordinator for the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations