Scott Fifer, a TV and film writer from Santa Monica, California, was getting sick of the Hollywood lifestyle. Sure, his scripts could make people smile and laugh but it didn’t seem good enough. He’d been learning more and more about all of the diseases and poverty in Africa, and he wanted to give something back in an authentic and tangible way.
“I had no excuse not to volunteer in Africa,” he says. “After seeing the films, and reading the news, it was clear that the need was so great.”
So in December of 2005, Fifer flew to the poor African nation of Tanzania to spend a month volunteering with a group called Cross-Cultural Solutions . The organization had arranged for him to work with a small orphanage he’d never heard of: The TunaHAKI Centre for Child Development.
But as soon as he stepped through the door of the TunaHAKI Centre to see the orphans’ beaming smiles, he knew that this was more than a simple volunteer vacation. For Fifer, helping the children of TunaHAKI would become a lifetime commitment.
As Fifer soon discovered, TunaHAKI is a one-of-a-kind place. The orphanage, founded by native Tanzanian David Ryatula and his wife Mary, is a safe haven for children whose parents have died of AIDS and other diseases, and children who have been abandoned. There are no infants here—all of the TunaHAKI orphans are older children who will stay at the shelter until they are old enough to live on their own. Unlike many African orphanages, though, TunaHAKI provides a warm and loving environment: “The children are full of such joy, and they are raised in such a wonderful and responsible way,” says Fifer. “It truly is a family.”
But it’s probably not quite like any family you’ve ever met, unless your parents happen to be circus folk. Ryatula, a former member of a traveling dance group, trains the children in acrobatics every day. They can do flying cartwheels, human pyramids, and hundreds of other amazing feats.
And it’s not just for show: Such skills will help the children to support themselves financially. By teaching them to juggle or to dance, Ryatula is giving each child the tools to create a better life.
The acrobatics training at TunaHAKI serves another essential purpose, too: It brings the children together. Because they must learn to work together and to trust one another in their acrobatic performances, the orphans learn to create their own family, building a sense of love and devotion as strong as any blood ties.
As soon as Fifer encountered Ryatula and the amazing children at TunaHAKI, he knew he had to support their mission in whatever ways he could. Upon his return to Los Angeles, he set up a nonprofit organization called the TunaHAKI Foundation , which would support and raise money for the TunaHAKI Centre and other organizations dedicated to orphans in Africa.
But Fifer also wanted to do something special for all the talented children he’d met at the Centre. Soon, he came up with an ambitious plan: He would bring the entire group to the United States, where they could train and learn new skills from the members of the world’s most famous group of clowns, contortionists, and other amazing acrobats: Cirque Du Soleil.
“I wanted them to see the potential for their own futures,” says Fifer. “And I wanted to raise awareness of their plight. By bringing them to the US to meet Americans, and to study with Cirque, I could do both.”
As you might imagine, arranging travel visas, airfare, food, and boarding costs for a group of Tanzanian orphans was no easy task, but Fifer was up for the challenge. Thanks to his tireless advocacy for the TunaHAKI kids, he managed to find a corporate sponsor to pay the children’s airfares, and to arrange the entire trip within several months.
“I guess I was just so passionate about it that it didn’t seem like work,” he says.
During their whirlwind trip to the United States last November, the TunaHAKI children had the chance to train with members of Cirque du Soleil, to attend Cirque performances, and to perform for TV shows, schools, and sports games in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Las Vegas. A documentary crew followed the Tanzanian children throughout their adventure. (A preview for the not-yet-released film is available here .)
“We had a hectic schedule, and I was responsible for all of it,” says Fifer. “I was wearing so many hats: Caretaker, tour guide, fundraiser, driver, translator… I was exhausted when they left to go back home. But it was worth it.”
Invigorated and inspired after their American adventure, the orphans have learned plenty of new moves from their friends at Cirque du Soleil. They’re now back in Tanzania, but Fifer is hard at work on a new project to help them out: “We are currently planning to build an environmentally friendly arts-based home and theatre for the TunaHAKI kids, which will have income-generating activities and schooling, so they can eventually stand on their own.”
Fifer considers the children of TunaHAKI part of his family now. But he doesn’t want to stop with them: Through the TunaHAKI Foundation, he hopes to reach out to children throughout all of Tanzania, and eventually, through all of Africa and beyond.
“I want TunaHAKI to be a model for the care of orphans and vulnerable children everywhere,” he says.
Learn more about TunaHAKI at the Foundation’s Web site .
By Kathryn Hawkins for Gimundo,  the site for good news, served daily. Sign up for our newsletter  for more great stories and weekly giveaways!