Annie became involved in this project after volunteering for a week at the SOS Children’s Village of Tlokweng in Botswana last January while accompanying her father on a business trip. The experience of working with children—many of them orphaned by AIDS—was life changing, she said. And now she’s eager to give something back.
So what would make a soccer-playing, horseback-riding teen who likes hanging out with her friends go to Africa? “I had heard many stories about Africa from both of my parents,” she wrote in an essay reflecting on her experiences in Africa. “My dad is always eager to share stories about his two-year stay in Sierra Leone while working with the Peace Corps.” But it wasn’t the stories about teaching agricultural techniques to the people of Sierra Leone that drew Annie in; it was the stories about an elderly man who used to sit silently with her father every night to make sure he wasn’t lonely. It was the stories of how families, who had so little, generously shared with a stranger.
So when her father, Breck Arnzen, announced an upcoming business trip to Botswana, Annie begged to go along. Initially Arnzen refused, thinking that the trip might be too difficult and that Annie would soon be bored sitting around a hotel room while he worked. But Annie persisted, and after some thought, Arnzen relented. “It was clearly a journey,” he said, “and it’s my hope that all my kids will experience more of the world.” (Annie has two sisters and a brother.) Annie could come along, he said, but only if she earned half the airfare herself and could find something meaningful to do.
Annie leapt at the chance. Her dream was to work in an orphanage, and she set to work locating an organization that would allow her to volunteer for a week. It wasn’t easy but the SOS Children’s Village, an international organization of 1,600 orphanages with two in Botswana, was able to accommodate her request.
Three days after leaving for Botswana on January 27, 2006, Annie and her father found themselves being driven to an orphanage in Tlokweng where they were met by Derrick James, who had founded the two SOS Children’s Villages in Botswana. After touring the facility, Annie was suddenly whisked away to start working with the children. “It was a jolt to me,” Breck Arnzen said about her sudden disappearance. “But I fundamentally had great trust in the people I was leaving her with.” After each day of work, Annie was driven back to the hotel.
Annie was assigned to work with a group of children aged one to three. She played with the children and helped out at mealtimes. One day she scrubbed toys. Another day she organized the kindergarten’s books and made counting cards for one of the classes.
Annie was stunned by how little the children at the orphanage had. In her essay she described how she once saw all of the children in her group get a lollipop—except one. The children quickly surrounded the boy who didn’t have one and all shared theirs with him. “These children had next to nothing,” Annie wrote. “Yet without being asked they were willing to share the little they had.”
After the trip, Annie wanted to help the children she had met but didn’t have any idea of what she could do. Then, shortly before Thanksgiving 2006, she received a letter from Derrick James. He asked Annie whether she could help raise $300,000 to construct a new orphanage. “I immediately decided that that was something I could do to help,” she said. That day the Arnzen family founded A Precious Cause to raise money for SOS. The name was chosen to honor Precious, one of the children Annie cared for at the orphanage.
In December, Annie hit the speaking trail. But, in order to raise money, she felt that she would have to give people something. She created a simple necklace using a heart charm and wire and sold them for $5 after her talks. Each necklace has a tag saying, “Give your heart to a precious cause.” At the first church she made $500. At the second, $1,500. Her project was adopted by a class at a local high school, which generated $2,000. At present she has assembled $10,000.
Although Annie is dedicated to raising the total sum of $300,000, her mother, Lani Peterson, tries to keep things in perspective. “We try to break it down into smaller increments,” she said. “To build one of the homes in the orphanage is $20,000. So we’ve said, ‘Let’s raise the money for a home and send that over.’” Other organizations are also involved in raising the $300,000, she added.
Annie is quick to credit her family with providing her with both inspiration and support. “They’re such a huge help,” she said. “They all come to my speaking gigs, and my two sisters come up and stand with me and show the pictures while I talk.” She also thinks her Unitarian Universalist upbringing has contributed to her activism. “From a young age at the church they always taught us that service was a big part of playing a role in the world.” The foundation for this was also laid at home when the Arnzen children, who were home-schooled for a time, dedicated their Fridays to working in the community.
Gail Forsyth-Vail, director of religious education at their UU congregation, the North Parish of North Andover, has known Annie and her three siblings much of their lives. She said that Annie’s accomplishments are understandable when taken in the context of her family. “It’s a phenomenal family,” she said. “Each one is bound to make a difference. But that doesn’t mean that I’m not in awe of what Annie is doing. I’m honored to know her.”
Forsyth-Vail also credits her congregation with empowering its teens. “It’s the culture in the congregation that when [the teens] see how they’re needed, they step forward.”
Annie’s parents are determined to control the media spotlight that is now trained on their daughter. In addition to being profiled by The Boston Globe, Annie has been on a local cable TV show. SOS has also proposed that she become a junior ambassador. “The understanding that we have with Annie is that as long as the focus is on the cause and on raising the money, then we’re 100 percent behind it,” Peterson said. “The pros are if we can maintain the focus, it can really raise awareness and bring help from a much greater arena.”
But they are cognizant of the limelight’s impact on Annie’s two sisters and brother. “Each of our kids has been involved in causes,” Peterson said. “We try to keep everyone maintaining their focus on what’s important to them whether it’s noticed by the outside world or not.”
- A Precious Cause. Organization set up by Annie Arnzen and her family to help raise $300,000 for a new orphanage in Botswana. (apreciouscause.org)