When government freshman Austin Rodriguez traveled to Africa over the summer for mission work, he spent four days in an impoverished Zambian compound eating nothing but cabbage, beans and rice. He noticed the trash that littered the ground. He saw the community lacked a plumbing system and had little electricity. But what resonated with Austin most was the school.
At Nzelu Academy, a single chalkboard hung on the wall. Holes spotted the ceiling of the concrete building. Some children sat on the few desks that filled the space. The rest found a place on the dirt floor.
“I walked in, and it was just terrible,” Austin said. “I couldn’t get over how most of the kids don’t really have a chance. They’re going to grow up with a bad education.”
Most of the kids attending school were orphaned, Austin said. Students didn’t have pens or paper to take notes. The teachers worked month-by-month on a volunteer basis and only got paid if people in the community could afford it.
When his time in Zambia came to an end, Austin didn’t want his involvement with the school to be over. With the help of his mom, Kellie Rodriguez, and other family members, and, after months of planning, Austin held a 5K fundraiser in his hometown of Fredericksburg, Texas, on Saturday. His plan is to use the money to form a nonprofit organization to improve Nzelu Academy. With the help of about 120 participants, they raised $4,000.
Money will go towards funding things such as renovations, teacher salaries, school supplies and lunches.
“Growing up with what he has — I think it hurt him seeing kids who grew up having nothing,” Kellie said.
Austin never would have traveled to Zambia or seen the school if he hadn’t attended summer camp in 2013. After talking to a speaker at the camp about his hope to one day explore the world, the speaker gave Austin the email address of John Judie, a priest in Louisville, Kentucky, who travels annually to Africa. Judie is the founder of the nonprofit organization Father John Judie Ministries, which sponsors seminaries, improves healthcare and helps young people access education in eastern African countries.
A year later, Austin was sitting on a plane next to him headed to Zambia.
“I’d always wanted to go to Africa to do mission work or something,” Austin said. “I didn’t go there with any actual plan. I just went.”
While in Africa, Austin accompanied Judie as he preached in different villages. They brought materials such as soap and clothes to places in Tanzania and Zambia.
Judie continues to play a role in Austin’s involvement with the Zambian school. He assisted with the 5K fundraiser and plans to link Austin with building designers and electricians in Zambia who can improve the school most efficiently.
“We want to make sure the job is done right,” Judie said. “We need someone who is on-site there that we can rely on and can inform us of what we need to do.”
Austin said he hopes to return to Zambia this summer. He plans to make the 5K in his hometown an annual event to keep raising money for the Nzelu Academy. Although the timeline for improving the school is not set in stone, Judie said he is confident everything is falling into place.
“I think it’s so important to let anyone and everyone know how deeply grateful we are for the support they give,” Judie said. “Austin has so much going on but is willing to take this on. That’s very significant to me.”