Tammy Chen: A Passion for Fostering "Bright Futures"
by Megan Bond
For Tammy Chen (’10), ‘giving back’ has always been her life’s ambition. It is the driving force that led her to the field of education, and to establish the non-governmental organization, Bright Futures of Burkina Faso (BFB).
Upon receiving her Bachelor of Education degree in 2008, Chen became aware of a void that needed to be filled in her life. There was more that she wanted to accomplish beyond the domain of classroom teaching, so she began searching for inspiration. Her search ended when she discovered the graduate program at Queen’s Faculty of Education, and now retired professor, Dr. Sheryl Bond.
“When I met Sheryl we just hit it off,” explains Chen. “Sheryl was my initial draw to the M.Ed. program. I found everyone at the faculty to be so nice and flexible. I was encouraged to shape my own research while exploring my own interests.”
While in the M.Ed. program, Chen discovered that her interests in education and development could not only be her focus of research, they could be nurtured. As her thesis supervisor, Bond encouraged her to jump right into the world of development, directing her to get involved in a student-run university organization called Queen’s Project on Professional Development (QPID). With QPID she travelled to Burkina Faso in western Africa where, as site director, she helped to set up a radio station and worked with street youth as part of her masters research.
“QPID allowed me to explore my interests. It’s great because it can inspire people to continue on in development, or decide if it’s not for them. I was one who was inspired.”
During her three-month sojourn in Burkina Faso, while attempting to register two street youth into school, Chen met a man who would have a great deal of influence on her future path, Francois Yogo. As principal of the village school Amis-du-Monde, Yogo was viewed in high regard and was well respected. Chen developed a connection with Yogo and learned about the issues that plagued his students and surrounding community. Chen listened, took it all in, and when it was time for her to leave, she brought it all home with her.
Returning to Canada was unexpectedly difficult for Chen. “I went through a six-month period of withdrawal. I had thought that I had hated it over there but I was really hating it here and wanted to go back.”
Chen began to feel frustrated and started questioning her own place in the world during what she describes as her post-Africa period of “counter culture shock”. She felt an undeniable urge to help the community and the children at Yogo’s school. After receiving her M.Ed. degree from Queen’s, Chen decided that she had to return.
In March of 2011, with the support of her husband Johann Tritthardt (’14), Chen revisited Burkina Faso on a mission to reconnect and collaborate with Yogo in the hope of generating sustainable solutions that would see the children in Yogo’s community have the resources and funds necessary to attend school.
“Some of my expat friends would say ‘it is what it is’ and it’s not going to change, but change is possible,” explains Chen. “You tend to see some development agencies use ‘bandaid’ solutions to problems. We wanted to come up with some sustainable solutions that would be feasible for us from afar.”
It was important for Chen and Tritthardt to learn what would also be feasible for the physical and social environment of Burkina Faso. Getting to know the people at a personal level allowed them to step into a new world, gradually transforming them from strange foreigners to trusted partners in the community.
“We realized that it takes time, and that it is a process of learning from your mistakes. We wanted to get a sense of reality, their reality,” explains Chen.
The reality was that over a fifth of the children at Yogo’s school could not afford a full year’s tuition. Chen saw these children, many orphans, deserving of education, and as prospects of hope for the advancement of their community. It became clear that bursaries would be needed to help these children have access to learning and increase the potential for sustainable development in the area.
To further support the children and the sustainability of the community, Chen and Tritthardt decided to initiate a microcredit program for the mothers of the needy students at Amis-du-Monde. Loans would be provided to the women so they could launch their own businesses. Further literacy, accounting, entrepreneurship, and health education would be available to the mothers and other women in the community as well.
After returning home to Canada, Chen and Tritthardt began their meticulous journey towards establishing their Canadian registered charity, aptly named Bright Futures of Burkina Faso.
“We wanted to do it right. We met with lawyers and registered with CRA so that we could issue donation receipts. Adding this layer of security meant that we were adhering to certain standards. When donors are donating to our charity it becomes more than just two people who want to help,” explains Tritthardt, a financier and currently enrolled in the Queen’s/Cornell Executive MBA program.
Since receiving the mark as a Canadian registered charity, more than 35 children have been supported and 30 women have received loans to help support businesses that include trade, food preparation, farming, weaving and artisanal work. The BFB team has grown and now has six members, including Queen’s graduate Colin Lynch (’07) who also sits on the Queen’s University Board of Trustees and University Council. The team has a strong belief in their two initiatives, sustaining them with their guiding principles of passion, respect, sustainability, and accountability. Their work is guided by the hope that if their charity ever ceases to exist, all that has been accomplished would not be in vain and the community would continue to grow and develop without them.
In retrospect, Chen views Queen’s in high regard. “Without Queen’s, the M.Ed. program, and Sheryl, this wouldn’t exist.”
Chen and Tritthardt try to visit Burkina Faso twice a year, each time meeting more community members and reconnecting with the women and children they have grown to know well. “It’s important that they see us as trustworthy,” explains Tritthardt. “If we keep returning and show that we are there to help and that we’re not imposters, they will trust us, we will trust them, and then we can function.” Chen adds, “We don’t just see people who are poor, we are inspired by the people we see. We want to be strong like them. Not feel sorry for them.”
And strong they are. Not to mention determined, and probably sleep deprived. Beyond their duties as President and Executive Director of BFB, Chen and Tritthardt both work full time. Tritthardt is an associate with Morgan Stanley and, in his not so existent spare time, he trains for triathlons, while Chen teaches French and social studies at a middle school in Toronto.
“As a teacher you’re always giving back,” explains Chen, “There’s a lot of selflessness in it. Development is similar.”
Chen believes that teaching is a privilege with accompanying responsibilities. “When you’re young you have a lot of great ideas about what you want to do and accomplish. Then you neglect to follow through because life takes over. I want to teach my students that it’s important to follow through. You do what you want to do and work hard.”
When asked what advice she would give Queen’s students and new teachers, Chen passionately responds, “People don’t know what skills are required of teachers. Don’t limit yourself. If you love education and teaching then combine it with other passions to make it a unique experience. Good teachers bring what inspires them to the classroom. We’re humans and that’s what kids attach themselves to.”
Follow the school and Tammy's work on the "Bright Futures" website and Facebook pages: