Welcome back, Germ readers! Recently, Germ had the great honor of interviewing Masha Balovlenkov, co-founder of the non-profit organization Stand Tall International. Through her team’s amazing work at the non-profit, several young lives in Tanzania and abroad are receiving life-changing surgeries and funds for schooling within their communities. So, I won’t waste any more time; instead I’ll hand it over to Masha who will tell you all about it! Enjoy!
GM: First off, thank you so much for agreeing to talk with all of us at Germ about the amazing work you’re doing at Stand Tall International! Could you tell us a little bit about yourself and how you found yourself in Moshi, Tanzania, for the first time?
Masha: I am an LA-based dancer and singer. Three years ago, I was thinking about retiring as an artist, so I decided to fulfill a lifelong dream. My husband and I booked a trip for 2 months to volunteer in Tanzania — something I’d been saving up for since college. We were supposed to be working a project in arts and education, but we discovered really quickly that if people can’t eat, they couldn’t care about art. We needed different projects and quickly. My husband started working in an orphanage, and I started working a local organization named Jipe Moyo, where I created exercise programs for women with chronic health conditions, HIV, diabetes, stroke, bed-ridden, etc.
While working there, a grandmother asked me if I would look at her grandson’s back. I told her I didn’t have X-ray vision, but I would still meet him. But you didn’t need X-ray vision; his spine was growing the wrong way out of his back. I promised her that if she allowed me to take some pictures, I would try to get some answers about his condition — and everything took off from there.
GM: Your first success story involved a young boy named Benson, whom you’ve mentioned already. Can you tell us about his journey to recovery, and can you also give us some insight as to the obstacles you are faced with when it comes to funding the entirety of his travel and medical expenses? How is he doing today?
Masha: That’s a great and long story, so I’ll try to keep it short. When we met Benson, he was really sick with more than just his back. He could barely walk, he was very malnourished — he only weighed 52 lbs. — he was dirty and didn’t have any clothes. He lived with his grandmother in a house made of mud and sticks. Because of his living conditions, the first step was just to get him clothes, food, and medicine. After arranging his surgery and getting him set with the basics, I returned to the US to start fundraising, and I will be honest, I had no clue what I was doing. I started a crowd-funding site and wrote a really honest email to everyone I knew…and then amazing things started happening. People approached me and asked if they could host events and fundraisers for Benson. I was absolutely overwhelmed by everyone’s generosity.
Then it was time to return to Tanzania and actually take Benson for surgery. This was the most challenging part. We had to get permission from his mother to take him out of the country, but he hadn’t seen his mother in many years. She also didn’t have a phone, so we had to just play an old-fashioned game of telephone and have the neighbors send word through the villages until we found her. This is just one of the many surprises that popped up, but everything worked out, and we finally left for Ghana. Once he actually received proper medical treatment, Benson was like “Wolverine” — he healed so quickly. With medication and a back brace, he began to walk and started feeling better. This was the first time we got to see him smile. It was one of my favorite days ever!
He spent 5 months in the hospital and then returned home, and that’s when he began school. Now, Benson is amazing. He has the most beautiful smile, laughs all the time, is outgoing, and really loves everybody. He loves sports and school, and I even got to teach him how to swim. If you met him today, you would never know he used to be sick.
Our biggest obstacle the first time really was that we had never done this before, and I was unfamiliar with how to work through a government system that has no computers. Funding was surprisingly not as difficult because no one had ever seen anything like this before, and they were really excited to help Benson. Now that we are an actual charity, though, and are taking in more children like Benson, fundraising has actually gotten much more challenging.
GM: From what I’ve read about the origins of your organization, it sounds as if you and your co-founder, Jason Smith, stumbled on to this passion project almost by accident. How did you and Jason come together in order to make Stand Tall International into a reality?
Masha: I am really lucky because Jason Smith is my husband. He had never met Benson, or even been to his village, but he knew the whole story and was with me when the doctor emailed saying he would do Benson’s surgery. Jason said it first, if we were going to start this, we would see it all the way to the end. We didn’t know that there really is no end, though, because we are connected to Benson and the rest of the kids, at least till they graduate from school, but probably a lot longer than that.
GM: Can you tell us about your connection with F.O.C.O.S Orthopedic Hospital in Ghana, and what it is like to work with the doctors who quite literally have the ability to change a child’s life for the better in their hands?
Masha: There is nowhere like F.O.C.O.S. I really can’t explain how beneficial this relationship will be to both my life and the entire country of Tanzania. And it’s not just the doctors; it’s the entire hospital. From the workers to the volunteers — they are talented, smart, dedicated, and truly committed to making a difference in the world. Just for one example, one doctor from F.O.C.O.S. offered to fly to Tanzania for a week to do surgeries. This would allow us to reach a whole community of children we can’t normally help because it is not possible for them to fly to Ghana, and there are no pediatric neurosurgeons in the entire country.
GM: Living in an affluent and technologically forward county, we often forget that access to medical care in places like Tanzania is hard to come by — and sometimes impossible to find. What are the obstacles a child faces when they live day in and day out with an affliction such as spinal tuberculosis? And how do you keep your positivity when you are coming face to face with these children?
Masha: I have to be honest and say some days are harder than others. We have had some really amazing experiences, but then there are all the children that I’ve met that found us too late. That at this point, there is nothing anyone could ever do for them. Calling someone’s parents and saying that no one will be able to help your child is one of the hardest phone calls I’ve ever made. But, all I can do is focus on the children that we are able to help because there are still so many of them. And we are actively looking to team up with other doctors and specialists to, hopefully, continually grow the number of children we are able to help each year.
GM: It’s no surprise that life-changing surgeries are contingent on having the money to pay for them. How does Stand Tall International raise the funds to send these children to Ghana, and how can ordinary people like us get involved in raising funds and/or awareness on behalf of these children?
Masha: At this point, 100% of our donations have come from independent donors. We love having people like you support our children. There are a variety of ways to get involved. You can become a sponsor for a specific child, give a donation, or host an event to share their stories. We are also always looking for volunteers.
GM: What I found incredibly intriguing about Stand Tall International is that your organization goes the extra mile by also funding a private education for your children after their surgeries. Can you tell us why it is vital to put these kids through school after they’ve gone through surgery?
Masha: This all started because of Benson. We were getting ready to leave for surgery, and I realized that you can’t take a child out of the ghetto, show him technology, have him ride in an airplane, introduce him to people from all over the world, and just send him back to that situation. Secondly, all the children reach full recovery, but by Tanzanian standards they will always be disabled because they have mental implants in their spine. They will never be able to work a traditional hard labor job, like selling firewood or carrying water on their heads. Giving them an education sets them on a pathway where they can lead a life where they can support themselves and their families, and hopefully make a long-term impact on others’ lives as well.
My favorite part is that Benson wants to be a surgeon just like the ones who fixed his back!
GM: That’s amazing! Can you tell us all about the exciting news and surgeries that will be happening in April? And what was the first thing you did when you found out that Stand Tall International was able to fully fund the five surgeries?
On April 3rd, 5 children will be flying to F.O.C.O.S. Hospital in Accra, Ghana:
- Nalari: 8-year-old girl
- Zainabu: 15-year-old girl
- Jamila: 11-year-old girl
- Andrew: 12-year-old boy
- David: 10-year-old boy
We need to get them to the hospital because it is a much safer environment than living in the villages and because all of these children are at a high risk of being paralyzed. BUT, we actually have not funded their surgeries. We have raised enough to cover their airfare and any pre-operative care. But the children will be in the hospital, waiting for us to raise the rest of the money to cover their surgeries. They are expected to stay in the hospital for 6–12 months.
GM: I love what your website says about a positive impact on one life being able to improve the health of the entire community. When these children come back to their homes with a new lease on life, how does their success story impact the lives around them — from their parents to their neighbors and friends?
Masha: This is the hardest question to answer. There is the practical side, where they become less of a burden to their families because they are no longer disabled. But, the honest answer is, right now it is too soon to tell. They have their whole lives in front of them. But, there is one big immediate change that we see, and it is beautiful. The one immediate change is that the children and their families experience hope for the first time.
GM: And finally, where can Germ readers find your organization online so that we can all follow the positive progress Stand Tall is making in the world?
- Our website: www.standtallinternational.org
- Facebook: www.facebook.com/StandTallInternational
- Instagram: StandTallInternational
- Twitter: @standtallintern
Masha’s team is currently taking donations on the Givsee app and website if you feel so inclined to donate, or if you simply want to follow the progression of Stand Tall’s children as they make their way to Ghana!
Let’s wish all the best to Masha, the children, and all of those working incredibly hard to make a difference in the lives of young people who deserve to hope and dream big!