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‘Expanding lives’ for African women

Updated: November 19, 2012 2:13AM

A Peace Corps mission in Niger about 25 years ago kindled a desire in Leslie Natzke to do more for girls and women of the West Africa republic.

Natzke, a teacher, was startled that few girls attended junior high or high school in Niger and many were married off before turning 18 by impoverished families to collect dowries.

There is still plenty of despair there. Earlier this year, the charity Save the Children ranked Niger as the worst place in the world to be a mother, replacing Afghanistan at the bottom.

Natzke, of Albany Park, spent years thinking about and planning ways to help. In 2008 she launched Expanding Lives, a nonprofit that brings teenage and young adult women from Niger to Chicago each summer and immerses them for up to six weeks in English, computers, leadership, health, entrepreneurship and basic finance.

“At first we wanted to give them a boost to stay in school,” Natzke, 49, says. “Then it was, ‘We’re going to give them a boost, and they’re going to become leaders.’”

Many of the women are on their way to fulfilling that prophecy. Natzke keeps a count of those who are pursuing university degrees and those who are wrapping up high school and planning to attend college.

Expanding Lives ( board members spend this time of year fund-raising, planning and seeking applicants, with help from the charity Micro-Credit in Africa. Natzke relies on volunteers to teach classes at Loyola relating to basic life skills.

The women learn to knit, crochet and make plarn, a form of yarn made from thin plastic bags that litter the world. That might not seem like much, yet it could be the beginning of a craft business for a Nigerien woman. “One girl was very good at that,” Natzke says. “She teaches it at schools.”

The course in finance gives them basic knowledge on how to secure and manage small loans. The health class might be the most important, because it teaches the women about reproductive health and diseases such as AIDS and tuberculosis. They know HIV can be deadly, Natzke says, but her group dispels myths about how the disease is transmitted.

Each young woman has an American peer mentor, or you might say a BFF, during her stay. Natzke, who teaches English as a Second Language and French at Niles West High School in Skokie, has found willing students from her school district to join.

“It might sound silly, but the program and the activities really change the volunteers on the American side,” says Akshita Siddula, a junior at the University of Illinois who has been a peer mentor for four years. “It helped me decide what I want to do.”

Siddula is majoring in literature and community health and plans to pursue international nonprofit work after college.

“You can read about [another country], but it’s not the same as being one-on-one with someone,” Siddula says. She notes that most of the women from Niger come from large Muslim families. “They value family. They help take care of their younger siblings. They balance extra demands, fighting for fair education and helping to run the household.”

Natzke knows her organization is making a difference, not only because participants are pursuing higher education, but also because word is spreading in Niger about her organization.

She shared one applicant’s written response on why she applied: “I’ve met the Expanding Lives girls. They’re strong. They’re smart. They’re cultured. And I want to be like them.”

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