In the small village of Igoda, in central Tanzania, Whitworth alumna Susan (Jeffreys) Vinton, '82, her husband, Steve, and their two sons are living a life that reflects I Thessalonians 2: "We loved you so much that we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well, because you had become so dear to us." Out of the Vintons' love for underserved African children, they have nurtured a ray of hope for the future as founders of Village Schools International (www.villageschools.org).
The Vintons have lived and worked in Africa for more than 15 years. Before founding VSI, they had done extensive work building schools and clinics and sharing the gospel. When war in Congo forced them into neighboring Tanzania, in 1999, they felt a strong connection with the people and an overwhelming sense of need in the community. The lack of educational opportunities for children in these villages compelled them to focus their attention on improving the conditions and opening the door to a promising future for each child. "Surely, even if the rest of the world didn't care about those kids, God cared and He expected us as Christian people also to care," Steve wrote to family and friends shortly before beginning the VSI ministry.
Although the government has vastly improved the availability of primary schools for children in nearly every Tanzanian village over the past several years, those who want to receive full schooling are stifled by extremely limited space in secondary schools. Partnering with Equip, a training agency for missionaries wanting to serve in Africa, the Vintons launched their ministry in 2005. That year, they worked with people in the villages to build 22 classrooms and enroll more than 800 children who would otherwise never have had the chance to go to school. Graduates from colleges in America and Tanzania came as missionaries to teach classes and provide other types of aid to people in the villages. Parents from villages hundreds of miles away began to see hope for their children and wanted to support educational opportunities in their communities. The Vintons' efforts even attracted the attention of government officials.
This year, VSI is building an additional 52 classrooms to work toward a goal of opening an additional eight schools and enrolling 2,300 more students.
"We are very committed to the sustainability of what we are doing; therefore, from its inception, the VSI here in Tanzania (incorporated as Village Schools Tanzania) is run by Tanzanians," Susan says. The director is one of the Vintons' former students, and the Vintons serve as advisors. Before starting VSI, the Vintons planted churches and opened a theological college as well as a teacher-training college (both of which are now accredited and thriving), three clinics, two secondary schools and a primary school.
The Vintons and their missionary partners believe that their work opens closed doors to transforming communities. Not only are they providing a way out of poverty for many; they are also working to involve their students in community-health programs, especially focusing on helping AIDS victims or the orphaned children they've left behind.
Although she has known since she was 11 years old that she wanted to work in Africa, Susan says it was at Whitworth where she learned the first steps about sharing Christ's love in a hurting world. Shortly after graduating, she joined the Peace Corps, and, while working in Congo near the borders of Rwanda and Burundi, she recalled what she had learned in her Core classes about the depravity of man. "I recognized only then that without the forgiveness that is possible only through God, peace would be impossible for any length of time for the precious students that I had been teaching."
Among the Whitworth professors Susan remembers fondly, she credits Roger Mohrlang with teaching her not only to open her Bible, but also to love its author and content. She also is thankful for John Yoder, who shared his love and respect for Africa with her and her classmates.
"In Ephesians it says, ‘For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do,'" Susan says. "I sincerely believe that my time at Whitworth prepared me to begin that journey of doing ‘good works' that He had prepared in advance for me to do."