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Hudson High School graduate is making a difference in Africa

There have been a lot of adjustments for the 2006 HHS alumnus in her first year as a Peace Corps volunteer in Africa like washing her clothes by hand outside her home. While she admits to some culture shock, she is enthusiastic about her community and has already brought a successful water retention program there. (Submitted photo)1 / 3
Donna Zastrow speaks with her daughter Jacci Zappa as regularly as possible via cell phone or Skype. Zappa is in the middle of a two-year commitment to the Peace Corps in Tanzania. Her mother is helping in the effort to raise money for a library for the community Zappa serves. (Hudson Star-Observer photo by Meg Heaton)2 / 3
These are some of the children who will benefit if Zappa can successfully raise the funds needed to build a library in her village in Tanzania. (Submitted photo)3 / 3

Sounding like she could have been talking from across town, Jacci Zappa spoke with her mother and this reporter last week from Tanzania where she is working as a Peace Corps member.

Zappa, a 2006 Hudson High School graduate, has a degree in fisheries and wildlife but decided to make the two-year commitment to the Peace Corps to make a difference if she could. Just halfway through her assignment, it appears she already has.

Using the roof of her own home as a test site, she has successfully spearheaded the effort for a water retention program that will benefit villagers by irrigating their gardens and cutting down on the need to carry water long distances from a stand pipe.

This effort went on simultaneously with her primary mission to provide AIDS/HIV and malaria education for the village she serves, a priority all Peace Corps volunteers in Africa share. The transmission rate of HIV is very high in the area she serves. There are numerous single parent families and orphaned children as a result of the disease. Many don’t understand how the disease is transmitted and talking about with a stranger, especially one who looks and sounds so different, can be a challenge. Zappa said it was a question of trust.

“I think I have made real headway. This Sunday we will have the first active testing in my village. Instead of going to another community, people can be tested right here. That’s a huge step for them and me,” said Zappa.

The problem of understanding HIV/AIDS in her community has led her to a new initiative -- that of completing the construction of a community library that will not only support the education of the villagers but also provide a local resource center about HIV/AIDS and malaria information.

On her blog,, Zappa wrote, “Students deserve a place to study. They share one textbook with up to four kids and only during school hours. There is no such thing as reading for pleasure or to increase their aptitude or explore their interests. But along with that at-risk community members should not be afraid to ask malaria or HIV questions and have a place to get that information. I really want this for them…. I have never met such humble and appreciative people who offer what little they have for the communal benefit.”

Zappa recently completed an extensive process to move ahead on the library project. The village had begun a library project several years ago but funds dried up. The foundation walls are still there and Zappa hopes to raise $5,900 to complete the library this time.

“This is something that will have an impact on the whole community for years to come, long after I’ve gone home and for generations to come. I know it sounds cliché but something like this will change people’s behavior and will make life better for these people. That’s why I came here in the first place.”

Zappa’s library project is part of the Peace Corps Partnership Program. It is similar to Kendra Smith’s project profiled in last week’s Star-Observer but there are differences.

Zappa said most Peace Corp library projects work in conjunction with local schools where teachers can oversee them and students have ready access. But Zappa surveyed her community and found a different need.

“I learned continued education for everyone in the community is a top priority when it comes to improving their lives. They put access to HIV/AIDS and malaria reference material at the top of that list. My village is in the region with the highest HIV transmission rates. That just confirms what the community is saying. I want to help them finish what they’ve already started -- a community library and learning center.”

Zappa said the center will give primary school students a place to study outside of school for rigorous national exams as well as provide reference materials in their own language, Kiswahili. At-risk community members will have a safe place to ask peer health educators any questions, and research pertinent issues.

The learning center will also have a specific HIV/AIDS and malaria reference room open to everyone and will also be available for meetings and local events.

Zappa will be in Tanzania for another year. She admits to being seriously lonesome from time to time but says the work and the people have helped her cope.

The Peace Corps tells members about the “cycle of vulnerability,” the highs and lows that members experience over days and months far from home and in strange surroundings.

Zappa said she now knows what they were talking about. “Sometimes you feel like you aren’t getting anywhere or you aren’t doing a good job but then a kid will come up and say they have decided they want to be a nurse or a teacher and you know they are thinking outside of what they believed was possible and that is a very good feeling.”

A former HHS peer helper, Zappa is a member of a similar support for Peace Corps members like herself.

Children are a big part of Zappa’s life in the village. Often children stop by her home. Recently when she talking with Zappa via cell phone, her mother Donna Zastrow heard multiple children in the background.

“I had to talk with each one. They have great respect for their elders and they are taught to always greet them so that meant they all had to greet me. It was wonderful,” said Zastrow.

Zappa said her best friend in the village is the 8-year-old daughter of the headmaster of the school. She visits every day. “She is the best Kiswahili teacher ever. I have friends my own age but she is special.”

Zappa will travel to Ireland over Christmas where she will meet her mother and other family members. When her mother asked her if she wanted to return to Hudson for the holidays, she declined, saying it might be too hard to return to Tanzania.

But while Zappa misses her home and family and “a really good burger,” she is committed to completing her mission and to making that difference.

Meg Heaton

Meg Heaton has been a reporter with the Hudson Star Observer since 1990. She has a bachelor’s degree in anthropology and Native American Studies from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.

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