Out of Africa: Mayor Parker and son host afternoon tea to support Zambia school
Throughout her political career, Mayor Annise Parker has hosted many afternoon teas for women to network and get to know each other better. On Sunday, however, she hosted an afternoon tea of a different kind.
A diverse crowd of 200 spilled out onto the back lawn of they mayor's historic Montrose home for a charity tea to benefit Tree of Life Children’s School in Zambia. The school, being built by Family Legacy Missions International, is designed to accommodate 1,000 orphaned children that come from the most poverty stricken areas of the African nation's capital, Lusaka.
"To have a permanent school facility will literally change the lives of thousands of kids and change the future for thousands more. By supporting this event today you have helped make that happen,” Parker said, before proclaiming the day as Tree of Life Children’s School Day in Houston.
While supportive of the organization's goals, Parker made it clear she is not involved with Family Legacy during a prior interview in the mayor’s office at City Hall. "This is not my event, I’m just providing the place,” she said, adding she did not do any fundraising other than allow her name to be put on the invitation.
She agreed to host the tea because the project is dear to her son, Jovon Tyler, who has been to Africa with the organization as a camp counselor for the past three summers. (We became friends after I met him while he was a staff member on the project in Africa last year.)
"I wanted to do this because I've never seen him so passionate about something outside himself," Parker said.
Few people know the story of the connection between Parker and Tyler. Nearly two decades ago, she first got to know him at the Montrose Counseling Center, where she was a volunteer. After seeing the 16-year-old with all his worldly possessions in a small duffel bag, she discovered that he had been kicked out of his grandparents' house and was living on the streets. She gave him the keys to her home and took him in when he had no place else to go.
Parker and her partner, Kathy Hubbard became his foster parents and encouraged him to make something out of his life, he said. “They pulled me out of the gutter and raised me."
Perhaps because of his life story, he was drawn to the project in Africa. ”When you’re an orphan in Zambia you are worse than dirt on the bottom of a person’s shoe. No one cares,” he told the guests, many of whom were moved to tears by his passionate remarks.
"What has compelled me to raise the money to get this school built is that I didn’t think I was a person who deserved to get an education," he said and recounted a conversation he had with 13 orphaned boys in Africa.
"I sat down and asked these kids what they wanted most. Shoes? Parents? Love? The only thing they said they wanted was an education. I was in a country with kids who have nothing and all they wanted was an opportunity to learn. That transformed my heart and spirit and I decided then and there that I was going to do whatever it took to do my part to build the school that these kids wanted.”
Greer Kendall, CEO of Dallas-based Family Legacy Missions International, told a story of a young HIV-positive girl named Lahema who was left to die lying in the dirt as neighbors stood and watched. Unfortunately, these types of stories are common. Children in Zambia are told they are a curse if their parents have died or they are HIV positive. They are the last to receive medical care and be fed when food is scarce.
Parker acknowledges critics who wonder why she is supporting a school in Africa when there are so many educational needs in Houston. “I support a number of charities in Houston with my time and my money," she said. "I’m supporting this because it is my child doing it and because I care about what happens to the people around the world.”
Seen in the eclectic crowd, whose attire ran the gamut from jeans and T-shirt to suits with ascots, were Tripp Carter, Jim and Betty Herrington, Randy and Staci Schroeder,Eddie and Chinhui Allen, Nancy Allen, Lynn Wyatt, Lance Gilliam and Jackson Hicks, whose firm Jackson and Company catered the tea.
The final tally still in the works, but thus far the tea has brought in $85,000, enough to build and equip more than three classrooms at the school in Zambia, Tyler said.