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Red Sweater Project changes lives of children in Tanzania



SUBMITTED PHOTOS - The color red works just right for Ashley Holmer, shown with one of her students Mary Milia, left, and her mother.

Ashley Holmer is being careful about not rattling the culture of Tanzania. But with her Red Sweater Project she quietly is working some monumental changes in the African nation.

Why red sweaters? Because red is a color that is big, bright and stands out. The young Lake Oswego woman has put these sweaters on hundreds of Tanzanian village children, and they mean that the children are attending school and receiving an education that will make all the difference in their lives.

The Red Sweater Project is most meaningful for Tanzanian girls, who, before Holmer came along 10 years ago, were almost completely ignored when it came to education.

“I grew up in Lake Oswego and I was given so much,” Holmer said. “I’ve never been in a place where girls couldn’t choose their future. I felt that was unacceptable. Today, we have 200 girls in school who otherwise wouldn’t have a chance.

“I’ve dedicated my life and sacrificed a lot. This is one of the most fulfilling but challenging things I’ve ever done.”

(Image is Clickable Link) Maasai boys have big smiles while they study at the Orkeeswa School. The Red Sweater Project has opened up a whole new world for them.

How does a girl from Lake Oswego end up in Tanzania? In Holmer’s case, it was because she was a great soccer player. She has a huge folder of clippings her mother kept for her of her days as an all-state soccer player at Lake Oswego High School. Holmer formed a dynamic duo with her twin sister Haley, leading the Lakers to victory in many matches. She continued her hotshot soccer career at Willamette University, where the team was always high in the national rankings, twice made the final four in the NCAA Division III playoffs, and never lost a home match in four years.

Proving she could study as well as kick, Holmer earned a bachelor’s in psychology, then she came home again to Lake Oswego to start a nice, steady career in the mortgage industry. Then in 2005, fate threw her a curveball. Holmer was asked to coach soccer in a Maasai village called Mto wa Mbu.

“I had a chance to go to Africa and not as a tourist,” Holmer said.

Even better, Haley got to go with her, and the Holmer sisters proceeded to shock and awe the soccer-loving kids.

“They found us so interesting,” Holmer said. “Here were these two blonde, white females coaching them, and we actually knew what we were doing. We were scoring goals. They had never seen girls play in a sport like that.”

Somehow, Holmer’s soccer expertise convinced the village government she was capable of a far greater task. She received a stunning offer.

“They told me they would give me 15 acres to start a school,” Holmer said.

Instead of having a good laugh and going back to Lake Oswego, she said, “I can have an impact.”

Holmer’s goal was clear: build a school, educate both boys and girls and break the cycle of dire poverty in that area.

She also needed a symbol and a catchy name for her project. Her choice was pretty much perfect: Red Sweater.

“In choosing the uniform, we wanted to reflect a commitment to both tribal history and traditions as well as the modern future,” Holmer said. “The Maasai tribe wear rubegas (native clothing) in predominantly red and blue colors, so the color choices for the uniform were pretty clear — red sweaters and blue trousers/skirts.

“We wanted to show that observing the importance of a tribe’s history, while also receiving an advanced education in a formal classroom, weren’t mutually exclusive of each other. I didn’t want to change their culture. But the kids were clamoring for education.”

Coming up with a name for her project was the easy part. The hard part for Holmer was developing a skill set for a challenge she never expected.

“I knew nothing about fundraising,” Holmer admits. “But I thought, ‘We’re on to something here.’”

A glance at the Red Sweater Project website shows the remarkable job Holmer has done in building her organization up from 15 acres of undeveloped land. The Orkeeswa School was established in 2008, and now has 320 students (from ages 12 to 18). Four years later, Holmer opened the Mungere School. Today, it has 85 students, and it will soon add many more, since classrooms are still under construction. Her ambitious agenda includes a farm based solely on sustainability principles and a science and computer lab, for which she recently obtained a $40,000 grant from Rotary Club International. Holmer’s staff includes volunteers from all over the world.

Holmer has probably amazed herself more than anybody, and she has done so much to be proud of. Especially how she has changed the lives of Tanzanian girls. Before, they could only be wives and mothers, often becoming pregnant as early as age 13. A girl’s only reward would be a dowry of some cows. Now, if a village girl can graduate from high school she can lift her family out of poverty. Holmer points out the research shows African women reinvest almost 90 percent of what they earn back into their families.

“The girls really moved my heart,” Holmer said. “In our school, the girls are treated the same as the boys in the classroom. That’s a foreign concept in the developing world.”

Truly, things are not like they used to be in Holmer’s corner of Tanzania. However...

“There needs to be a revolution,” she said. “It’s not happening fast enough.”

Yes, Ashley Holmer is impatient. But if she wasn’t, there would not be a Red Sweater Project.

For more about the Red Sweater Project, go to redsweaterproject.org.

Contact Cliff Newell at 503-636-1281 ext. 105 or email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Ashley Holmer holds a solar lantern used by students to read at night.

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