It’s difficult to say where this story begins. It’s a complex tale, crossing generations and geographies. It’s also a simple story of following where God leads and living for something beyond ourselves. The ending is impossible to know because it’s not over yet, but it’s easy to find the center. It’s at the foot of Mount Kilimanjaro.
In June 1999, Don and Joann Tolmie were in Tanzania, near the foot of Africa’s tallest mountain, in the office of a Lutheran bishop. A pastor friend had found a place where God’s work was so evident that he wanted others to experience it, so he’d invited Don and Joann.
The Tolmies had led consistently faithful and missional lives, and they had traveled to numerous far-flung places around the globe since Don retired from his career as a lawyer for the Norfolk Southern Railroad 10 years before. So, at age 70, they traveled for 24 hours to get to Tanzania. There, they heard God inviting them to an adventure that would become their legacy.
Seeing a need
When they arrived in Tanzania, their itinerary unfolded with people on all sides. As the Tolmies traveled from place to place, they engaged with whomever was right in front of them, making mental notes as they toured. They were especially concerned about the many people they saw with physical handicaps, particularly the children.
They visited a vocational training center that accepted young people with physical disabilities and taught them a trade – sewing, carpentry, electronics. “What can be done to accelerate this program?” the Tolmies asked. The answer was disheartening. Only children who had a primary education could be accepted into one of these programs. But, they were told, no such schools existed for children with physical disabilities living in rural areas.
There are four million people with physical disabilities in Tanzania. Children with any kind of handicap are often kept at home, out of school, and considered a burden or even a curse.
The Tolmies asked Bishop Kweka, a long-serving leader in Tanzania’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, what could be done to help educate special-needs children in rural Tanzania. The bishop reached into his drawer and pulled out a set of plans. For years, a school for these children had been his dream, too.
Churches in Tanzania recognized the need, and land had been donated to the Lutheran Church to build a seminary and a residential primary school. Plans had been drawn by a well-respected Tanzanian architect. But funding ran out after the seminary was built. The plot for the school sat undeveloped the day the Tolmies visited.
Fulfilling a dream
After that meeting, the Tolmies’ servant hearts found a new focus. Back in Virginia, they presented an idea to the family. Don and Joann weren’t wealthy, but they seemed sure they could make it happen. So, the entire family committed to help. Their three adult sons had good careers, and, because the Tolmies had always practiced generosity, joining their parents in building a school in Tanzania was an easy choice.
A gift from the Tolmies funded construction of the school, which is operated by the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Tanzania. In the excitement of sharing their plans, Don and Joann also gained support among their friends and members of their own Lutheran church in Norfolk, VA, many of whom still give to support the school.
By late summer of 2000, workers had broken ground on the Faraja School for Children with Physical Disabilities. Foundations were being laid for the various buildings when Don and Joann arrived for a groundbreaking ceremony. Unexpectedly, 1,200 guests joined, including the prime minister of Tanzania.
The groundbreaking was the start of two decades of involvement for Don and Joann. They were beloved by the Faraja students, who called them Bibi and Babu (grandmother and grandfather) in Swahili. The word faraja means joy in Swahili, and this day began a legacy of joy to classrooms full of students who had, in the past, been all but forgotten.
It would also bring a legacy of joy to the whole Tolmie family.
The path to Faraja
David Gibson, who grew up with the Tolmies’ three sons, joined in giving to the project. His parents, along with Don and Joann, were part of a group of five couples who met while attending Augustana College. The group of 10 formed a deep friendship, and their families remained friends for 60 years, celebrating birthdays, attending each other’s weddings, and vacationing together.
He remembers his parents’ admiration. “They were in awe that their friends were still going to Tanzania in their 80s.” But this was always the kind of people they were, he says.
Don and Joann were born in Illinois during the Depression and raised in the Lutheran church. Their legacy of generosity extends to their children and grandchildren, their friends’ children, and further. But the path of their generous lives also stretches back a generation, to the 1930s, when Don’s mom worked as a volunteer advocate for children of Mexican immigrants, and Joann’s widowed mother worked as a teacher of children with disabilities.
As they raised their own family, Don and Joann’s ability to notice and quietly serve others’ needs came naturally. “Their entire lives were examples of faith, love, and service for others,” their oldest son, Dave, says. “The school they built in Tanzania was a continuation of their lifelong commitment to service, not a late-in-life revelation.”
Dave’s brother, John, says his parents felt “a relentless calling” to help. They opened their home to Laotian refugees, an African minister, and others. “I was always intrigued by how they would spend so much time actively helping others get back on their feet, instead of just providing financial support.”
A family adventure
After the school was completed, the Tolmies remained committed to the people of Tanzania. They’d tour villages where the children’s families lived, meeting people, learning about their needs. Then, they’d come back to the U.S. and share the stories.
“We used to say that my dad was the brains of the operation, and my mom was the heart,” Dave says. His dad built strong partnerships, while Joann carried pictures of the children and studied their names and faces so she could share about them with their sponsors. “They were intimately involved with every aspect of the ministry.”
Though the Lutheran Church owns the school, a nonprofit the Tolmies established provides nearly all funding for the school. All the Tolmies’ sons, and even their eight grandchildren, have helped. “The Faraja staff in Tanzania know that we won’t let it fall,” Dave says.
Dave is a partner in a private equity firm, so one of his roles as chairman of the Faraja Foundation has been to work with the school’s director to ensure all funds are used for the benefit of the children.
His brother, John, a healthcare expert, has overseen clean water efforts and a wellness project with St. Joseph Medical Center in Baltimore. He traveled with Don and Joann and others for hours on dusty dirt roads to meet people’s needs. He remembers watching his mother holding the hands of children during medical procedures.
Debi Swanson – Joann’s niece, who’d been a pediatric nurse for 30 years before she took her first trip to Faraja – joined to help. Despite her initial shock at the severity of their physical conditions, Debi grew to see what her aunt had often said: “Truly, disability does not mean inability.”
The Tolmies’ third son, Paul, first visited Faraja with his 14-year-old daughter, Caroline. He recounts two days of being totally immersed in and inspired by what they saw: “Children on crutches, barely able to move on their own, were pushing wheelchairs for those who couldn’t. These children possessed such a joy for life!”
At home, Caroline began running errands to earn money for Tanzania. Not only did the job raise thousands of dollars to support a computer lab at Faraja, it also gave her an opportunity to tell others about the school. “At 14 years of age, she had experienced genuine selflessness,” Paul says.
John’s son, Chris, who – as a teen – had accompanied his father to the school’s groundbreaking ceremony, carries his grandfather’s words with him: “Live beyond yourself every day.” During his first year of dental school, he recruited other students and established an oral-health program at Faraja. The program was a catalyst among Chris’ classmates for increasing awareness of global disparities. But it was also “a living example of the power rooted in leading a mission-driven life,” Chris says.
All eight of the Tolmie’s grandchildren have been to Faraja. They, along with their spouses and friends, sponsor children and are often raising money for the Faraja kids.
The legacy at the foot of the mountain
Don and Joann traveled to Tanzania 37 times over 14 years, until their health would no longer allow it. Don died in 2020, and Joann passed away at the end of 2022.
Don had always resisted requests to build more primary schools. So, the Faraja Foundation raises funds instead to help thousands of other children with disabilities.
The legacy they left has given the entire family a sense of purpose – to live beyond themselves. “As my dad was nearing the end of his life, he was concerned he was leaving us a burden,” Dave says. “I told him, ‘No, Dad, you’ve left us a gift.’”
The Tolmies also left a legacy to Tanzania: the introduction of the idea that children with physical disabilities have worth and often strong capabilities, especially when they receive the care they need.
When the first Faraja graduating class took their government standardized exams at the end of seventh grade, no one knew how the students would do. The results were a revelation. Faraja students scored in the top five percent of students in the country.
“Not only were they capable of getting through school – they were capable of excelling,” Dave says. It caught the attention of parliament, which publicly recognized Faraja. And it’s brought about cultural change.
Some graduates of Faraja have gone on to higher education, becoming accountants and medical professionals. One teaches children with autism; another works with computers. All have been assured of their unspeakable worth in God’s eyes, and one even climbed Kilimanjaro.