Vestavia Rotary Member Helps Build School in Africa
By Keysha Drexel
When Greg Jeane was a young boy growing up in Texas, he read Richard Halliburton’s “Book of Marvels” and became fascinated with the idea of traveling to Africa.
And while he daydreamed of traveling to the exotic locale pictured in the iconic tome, Jeane said he could have never predicted he would get to help build a school in Africa.
“I read Halliburton’s book until I practically had it memorized and I thought Africa was the most intriguing place in the world, but I never really thought I’d make it there,” he said. “I just didn’t think it was in the cards for me.”
But on July 19, Jeane will embark on his 16th mission trip to Africa, where he planned and coordinated the construction of a school in the village of Sikuzu, Zambia.
Jeane first traveled to Africa in 2003 on a mission trip with members of Independent Presbyterian Church, which he attends.
“The first time I stood on African soil, all those memories of reading about Africa as a child came flooding back, and it was incredible to think that I was really there,” he said.
And while he was happy to be able to see Africa with his own eyes, that first mission trip left him with mixed emotions, Jeane said.
Jeane, who retired in 2007 as a professor of geography at Samford University, said he thought he knew what to expect when he got to Africa.
“I taught classes about Africa for 18 years at Samford and for 15 years before that at Auburn University, so I thought I knew what I was getting myself into, but I was wrong,” he said.
Jeane said he wept over the poverty he saw during his first trip to Africa.
“You can’t know until you’re there and it hits you in the heart and you realize how blessed you are to live in the United States,” he said. “That trip changed my life.”
Jeane, who is a member of the Vestavia Hills Rotary Club, said his heart broke to see children living in mud huts with no access to clean water.
“They get their drinking water from the Zambezi River, which is very polluted, and they have to watch for crocodiles and hippos and it can be very dangerous,” he said. “I was in Africa for about five minutes when I realized there were enough Rotary projects there to last for a quarter of a century.”
With a grant from the Rotarians, Jeane coordinated the construction of a water well in the African village of Mwandi in 2006.
“That well is still pumping out thousands of gallons of sweet water for those children,” he said. “No one has to walk down to the river for water now. It seems like such a simple thing to us, but it has made a huge impact in the lives of the villagers.”
But while Jeane said he always left Africa feeling like he had made a difference, he felt he could do more to help the children there.
“There was a school in Mwandi, but the children who lived away from the village out in the bush had to walk five miles each way to get to school. That’s a very dangerous trip for a 6-year-old to make, and just like mothers here, the mothers in Africa didn’t want to send their children on a dangerous journey by themselves,” he said. “I knew it was a problem, but I didn’t know how to address it until what I call Greg Jeane’s Personal Wedding Miracle happened.”
It was August 2010 and Jeane was attending the wedding of a family friend’s son in Atlanta on the day before he was scheduled to leave on a mission trip to Africa.
“I was grousing about it and saying what horrible timing it was when in reality, the timing couldn’t have been more perfect,” he said.
While his wife was hosting a bridesmaids luncheon, Jeane struck up a conversation about his mission work in Africa with the relative of a friend.
“I had never met him before but knew he was a very successful commercial developer in Baltimore,” Jeane said. “He asked me why I kept going to Africa and if I thought I was doing any good there, and that turned into a two-hour conversation over lunch.”
Later that evening at the rehearsal dinner, the businessman, Matthias DeVito, approached Jeane and told him he would like to give him a sizable donation to continue his mission work in Africa.
“He asked me to bring back some ideas to him about the most pressing needs in Zambia, so while I was there, I asked everyone in the village, including the principal chief of the Lozi tribe,” Jeane said. “Apparently, that was a pretty rare thing–for someone to actually ask the people living there about what they needed the most.”
The tribal chief told Jeane that access to education was what his people needed most of all.
“He told me that people have been coming to Mwandi for years on mission trips and that he was thankful for everything that had been done but that he had people living out in the bush and that those children needed a school. He told me that education is the key to everything there,” Jeane said.
Jeane reported back to DeVito and told him that it would cost about $40,000 to build a school in Sikuzu. Within a few weeks, DeVito and his wife, Rosetta, their DeVito Family Trust and their nephew Frank Timlin and his wife, Neenah, had donated the entire cost of the project.
“That’s one of those moments when you realize that it isn’t about you,” he said. “I realized that I had been tapped by the Holy Spirit to make sure this project gets done.”
The new school in Sikuzu was dedicated on Jan. 9, 2012.
With the help of the Rotary Club and Vestavia Hills High School, Jeane raised money to buy furniture for the school and to install latrines, a water system and solar panels to provide power to the school and the village of Sikuzu.
“Part of the proceeds of the (Vestavia Hills Rotary) club’s Iron City Chef competition helps the water project, and we got a grant from the Birmingham Rotary to help build the latrines,” he said. “And I just reported to the Vestavia club that the national ministry of education has provided a second teacher to the school, so that shows me that enough children are coming there from the bush settlements.”
Jeane said he is always excited to return to Zambia to see the people he has come to regard as close friends.
“I know that we are making a difference there and sometimes that difference isn’t about bringing money or doing something, but it’s about being there and continuing those relationships we’ve built,” he said. “There’s great joy when we arrive in the village, and it’s bittersweet when we leave because life is so fragile there and you don’t know who’s still going to be there the next time you visit.”
Jeane said while he knows God is doing good works through him and the others who do mission work in Zambia, he always feels he has gained more than he has given.
“In the U.S., we are quite good about quoting snippets of Bible verses, like ‘This is the day the Lord has made; We will rejoice and be glad in it,’ but the difference is that in Africa, they don’t just say it, they live it,” Jeane said. “I’ve learned so much about true faith from the friends I have met in Africa.”
Jeane said he will continue to make mission trips to Africa for as long as he possibly can.
“It’s been a remarkable experience, and it isn’t over yet,” he said.
Iron City Chef Is Food-themed Fundraiser
An annual culinary event to raise money to help those in the community and abroad is set for July 26 this year.
A continuation of the Vestavia Hills Rotary Club’s Toast Series, the 2014 Iron City Chef competition fundraiser will start at 6 p.m. at the Culinary and Hospitality Institute at the Jefferson State Community College Shelby-Hoover campus on Valleydale Road.
Haller Magee, Jeremy Downey from Bistro V, James Pruitt from Todd English P.U.B. and Sean Butler of Studio B will face off in this year’s culinary competition for charity.
This is the sixth year for Iron City Chef, said Kent Howard, event chairman.
For about 24 years, Vestavia Rotary put together a “Rotary Roast,” Howard said. The roast featured well-known people like sports radio host Paul Finebaum and Bobby Bowden, then Florida State University’s head football coach, Howard said.
“It was extremely successful, but we decided we needed to make the transition from roasts, which were becoming more plentiful in the fundraising arena, to something different,” he said. “Scott Huner, who was our president then, had the idea for Iron City Chef.”
Howard said Huner contacted Joseph Mitchell, program director for Jefferson State’s Culinary and Hospitality Institute, about the idea. The club and college have partnered to host the event ever since.
Howard said the Rotary competition uses the “Iron Chef America” format but doesn’t exactly duplicate it.
The event begins in the college’s Health Science building’s large multipurpose room, and each chef does a savory course and a dessert course. Guests then get to vote on their favorite chef table.
The two contestants with the highest number of votes face off in the institute’s pastry kitchen, where they are presented with a basket of mystery ingredients. Judges then critique the final plates and pick the top chef.
While the cooking competition is the main event, Iron City Chef has other activities for guests. There’s a silent auction, music and a wine tasting sponsored by Western Supermarkets.
Tickets are $55 each, and corporate sponsorships for the event are available at two levels. For $400, table sponsors get four tickets, reserved seating and four raffle tickets. The $800 table sponsorship includes eight tickets, reserved seating and eight raffle tickets.
Howard said Vestavia Rotary has two groups. The Noon Club meets on Fridays at the Vestavia Hills Board of Education, and the Sunrise Club meets at 6:45 a.m. at the Vestavia Hills Library in the Forest.
Iron City Chef has raised more than $700,000 since it started, Howard said.
Proceeds support Vestavia Hills High School’s math and debate programs, a scholarship for a Jefferson State culinary student, the local Rotary district’s disaster relief fund and Rotary International charities like End Polio Now and Clean Water for the World, he said.
The event’s sold-out status over the past few years is largely due to community support, he said.
Howard said the event is a success due to the corporate sponsorship and partnership Western Supermarkets and WVTM 13.
“Without their support, this event would not be possible,” Howard said. “They help create a night out that the whole community looks forward to every year.”
For tickets and more information, visit www.rotarytoast.org. Call Howard at 913-1941 for sponsorship information.