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Natalie Lawton and Ela ­Lagos returned from Africa in time to begin the school year at Redmond Proficiency Academy, but they’re still sifting through their adventures. They had spent a two-week trip in eastern Africa through The Zuri Project, a Bend philanthropic travel program.

“There, monkeys are like deer (in Central Oregon),” Lawton, 15, said. “They’re everywhere.”

One vervet monkey stole part of Lawton’s lunch while they hiked near Ngorongoro Crater, a conservation area in Tanzania.

“I had just set my lunch down and a monkey stole my egg and my apple and my bread and ran off. We could see him eat all my stuff,” Lawton said. “It was spooky, but afterward we just laughed.”

Lawton, a sophomore, and 16-year-old Lagos, a junior, were two of three high school students to take part in the trip organized by The Zuri Project. Bend resident Jenn Hofmann built the program in 2017 out of the nonprofit Nomad Charities, an umbrella organization she founded with her twin sister, Janette Hofmann, to help African countries, while living in Kenya in 2002.

During the trip, Jenn Hofmann and her team’s work revolved around a primary school in the foothills of Mount Kilimanjaro. The team also went on a safari trip and traveled to Zanzibar, a semi-­autonomous island off Tanzania’s coast, where they studied the slave and spice trades.

Experiences like these are empowering for teenagers, Hofmann, 49, said. The Zuri Project allows them to better the world.

“Let’s just face it, Bend is very white,” Hofmann said. “It’s nice for these kids (to be) around Muslims, Arabs, ­Maasai (people). … They’re hearing different dialects of Swahili; they’re trying and learning how to cook traditional foods. … So much of the world operates on $2 a day. They got to see firsthand just how little people need to be happy.”

The trip cost each student $6,800, excluding airfare, to participate. Lawton received a $3,000 scholarship through The Zuri Project, funded by Bend resident Michele Ruschhaupt; Lagos received a $4,500 scholarship from Bend residents Kelly Zimmerman and Michele Flowers. With additional help from local businesses and nonprofits, Lawton covered all her expenses, while Lagos came within a $1,000. Of the money each teen raised, $500 went to Pamonjo Primary School in Tanzania, Hofmann said. The Zuri Project is planning similar trips for Central Oregon teen boys and girls to Tanzania in summer 2019. Spots are still open.

“They get to experience firsthand the impact of volunteer work,” Hofmann said, adding that the trip is culturally enriching, too. The time in Africa reminded Lagos of the many trips she and her family have taken to Mexico.

“It’s very ‘my house is your house, we share everything,’ which is really nice,” Lagos said.

Between using cement to build a kitchen and cleaning, Lagos and Lawton talked and played games with the elementary school students during the school’s recesses. The playground was a grass and dirt yard where children chased a soccer ball, Lagos said.

“I have photos on my camera of two little girls showing me their pens,” Lawton said. “They were super happy to have them, which made my heart burst.”

A language barrier posed issues, although Hofmann is conversational in Swahili.

“I taught kids the word smile because they laughed and smiled so much,” Lawton said.

Lagos picked up “jambo,” which is Swahili for hello, and “asante sana,” which means thank you. Lagos, who speaks Spanish, discovered a strong interest in learning Swahili. She hopes to return to Tanzania through college, work or in her personal life, she said.

“Personally, it makes me feel lucky to live where we live and to have what we have,” she said. “It also made me realize that other places like this do need help with their education system.”

Another highlight of the trip was the safari through Ngorongoro Crater. They rode in a Jeep-like “safari vehicle,” Lawton said. They saw giraffes, zebras, elephants, hippos and a rhino.

“To actually experience these animals which we’ve seen in zoos, in real life, in the wild — they’re almost more confident, they’re enjoying their space,” Lagos said.

Seeing the lions in their natural environment delighted Lawton and Lagos.

“The lions came right up to our safari vehicle,” Lawton said, describing with awe how the lions found relief from the sun in their shadow. “It was so incredible. I didn’t focus on the fact these animals could kill me if they had the chance. I love cats. The more you experience a lion you’re like, ‘Yup, you are just a big cat.’”

The group had a relaxed itinerary on Zanzibar. They took a guided tour “jam-packed” with history, Lagos said. They visited Freddie Mercury’s childhood home. Lagos is a longtime Queen fan. The trip took a sober tone as the group went on a guided tour of Zanzibar’s history as a global hub for slave trading.

“Seeing the quarters these poor people were stuffed in was … it was definitely heart-wrenching and hard at times,” Lagos said.

They spent the last few days on a secluded beach. Lagos tried to keep the weight of all the history at bay as the group enjoyed the crystal blue waters.

The pace of life in Tanzania made the girls reflect on what they think is important in life.

“It’s a simple life: farming, school, family — that’s it,” Lawton said. “They don’t have as much technology as we do at our fingertips where we get sucked into … social media and all of that toxic stuff. They really only have the ability to go out and play with friends and be happy that way and enjoy the beautiful place where they live. That’s why I think they were so happy compared to kids here who are the same age.”

Hofmann has spent time in Africa since 1995. She has lived in South Africa, Zambia and Kenya and visited each country in the southern and eastern regions of the continent, she said. Hofmann’s connections facilitated less ­touristy interactions.

“If you’re going blind into it, you might get a school just outside of Nairobi. You don’t know how far $2,000 will go,” she said.

In 2016, Hofmann “closed the chapter” on Nomad Charities’ previous operations, which had her spending up to six months each year for the last 15 years in Kenya, where she directed projects dedicated to clean water and farming. The organization purchased land and built a children’s home and a sustainable farm. The group’s most successful project was a student-­sponsorship program that put 442 Kenyan students through high school with the help of contributions from Central Oregonians, Hofmann said. Nomad Charities also brought Central Oregonians to a Kenyan village where they did philanthropic work. Africa is the place Hofmann keeps returning to.

“I’ve traveled extensively throughout the world, but I’ve just always had this love affair with Africa since my teen years,” Hofmann said. “(With The Zuri Project) I can give these kids the true experience of a lifetime.”

— Reporter: 541-617-7816,