One night in Tarime, Tanzania, Tyler Choi was having dinner with his fellow UB study abroad students. He noticed his driver, Peter, was not allowed to sit at their table.
Peter was a native Tanzanian. Choi, a Korean-American, was considered of a higher class.
Choi picked up his plate and went to sit at Peter’s table.
Choi, a sophomore political science major, is the creator of Helping You Grow Stronger (Hugs) for Tanzania, a nonprofit organization that “envisions the world where individuals can act upon their blessings and gifts,” Choi said. Choi is the director of the judicial branch of Hugs in the Buffalo area. The mission of Hugs is to not only help improve the living conditions of people in Tanzania, but also to empower the youth in the United States by creating positive global change, Choi said.
“There’s a saying that goes, ‘In return for their friendship, I want to share their stories so that they wouldn’t be forgotten from this world,’” Choi said.
Choi is doing just that with Hugs for Tanzania.
Choi went to Tanzania for the first time through a UB Study Abroad program in January 2014.
Getting off the plane in Tanzania, he didn’t know what to expect. He had only seen the realities of developing nations in documentaries.
One day, Choi saw two 3-year-old children fetching water for their family.
Choi watched them smiling and laughing as they played in the filthy water. This image stayed with him.
In the countryside of Tarime, a district in East Africa, the tallest building is only four stories high. All the other buildings are made out of mud. Children walk around the city with no shoes – Choi could see the dirt on their hands and feet.
Even the food and water in Tanzania were dangerous.
Choi and the other UB students weren’t allowed to eat fruits and vegetables unless they were cooked and couldn’t drink water unless it came from a sealed bottle.
Memories of Peter, the children fetching infested water and the dangerous food made Choi want to return, but he wouldn’t come back with nothing. .
Outlining his mission
The first thing Choi did when he came to Buffalo after his study abroad trip was tell his friends, family and UB faculty members about Peter’s story.
Peter was a 32-year-old man who belonged to a tribe where the marrying age was 18. But to get married, the groom must exchange a cow for a wife.
Peter did not have the money to purchase the cow because he was supporting his younger siblings’ education. He never went to high school and became a driver so that his siblings could go to school instead.
Choi wanted to help people like Peter get back into school – that’s when he first thought about creating Hugs.
In the spring of 2014, Choi met Joel Bervell, a sophomore at Yale University. Bervell had started his own nonprofit, Hugs for Ghana, when he was a freshman in high school. The program has raised thousands of dollars over the past six years.
Choi hoped to do the same for Tanzania.
“Children walk miles and miles to get water and don’t know when their next meal is going to be,” Choi said. “They can’t afford to go to school and it’s only about six U.S. dollars a year.”
Last spring, at Dodge Elementary School in Williamsville, while working with the Just for Kids afterschool program, students asked Choi what he wanted to be when he grows up. But he didn’t know how to explain the United Nations to a class of second graders.
So, he told them a story about the children he met in Tanzania.
“I told them, ‘I have friends living in Africa and they are a lot like you,’” Choi said. “‘But they don’t know when their next meal will be and can’t go to school. Your parents give you breakfast and you can play on the playground. I want to give my friends a chance to live like you.’”
Immediately, second-grade hands went up in the air asking what they could do to help.
At that moment, Choi realized the children had potential to help.
Their excitement inspired Choi to follow through with Hugs for Tanzania.
The return to Tanzania
On a Monday night last October, Choi had a panic attack.
He wasn’t sure if he could pull Hugs off and was afraid to disappoint all the people counting on him.
But with the support of his friends and the memory of Peter to guide him, Choi made a plan.
He decided to start with helping the primary school he visited on his first trip to Tanzania.
He made a promotional video and people donated 2,000 items of school supplies. He raised more than $1,000 that went to shipping the supplies to the school.
Choi was “fascinated by how quickly the stars aligned.”
He made 230 individual bags with pencils, pens, a highlighter, eraser and snacks. He packed it in a suitcase and on his second trip to Tanzania, he gave it to the principal of the elementary school.
“Being in Tanzania and seeing them get so excited over common everyday items we can get from any drug store was a humbling experience,” said Allen Liu, a senior political science and legal studies major.
Liu went to Tanzania this past winter with Choi and plans to go back to help more, even though he is graduating this semester.
“What Tyler is doing is amazing,” Liu said. “He didn’t go to Europe to see the attractions but instead went to Africa and it impacted him so heavily.”
The look on the children’s faces as they received the school supplies assured Choi that his dream had finally come true.
Life in Korea and Seattle
Choi never imagined he’d start something as big as Hugs when he first moved to the United States.
Choi was born in Korea and came to the United States when he was 3 years old. His parents moved back to Korea when Choi was in second grade. Then, during his junior year of high school, his parents moved to Seattle, Washington.
After being in Korea for 10 years, he was terrified of the idea of adapting to a new culture.
In Korea, classes went from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. and he spent most of the school day in math and science classes. Then, after the school day ended, Choi went to tutoring sessions, leaving him almost no time to see his family.
When he moved to Seattle, classes ended at 2 p.m.
He was introduced to school dances, classes outside of math and science and the freedom to find his passion – eventually working for the United Nations.
But with all his newfound free time, Choi couldn’t just sit back and relax.
“When you step out of your comfort zone, so much will happen to you that you would never expect,” Choi said.
Choi was involved in theater, choir, was on the swim team, participated in community service clubs and took on student leadership clubs.
Choi even ran for school executive elections. Neither he nor his family thought he would win, but he came out on top.
“Tyler doesn’t start things he won’t finish, which is usually never and when he does start something it’s done extraordinarily well,” said Mckenzie Cantlon, a sophomore political science major and friend of Choi’s.
After graduating high school, Choi decided to go to the “other side of the country” for college.
Choi is currently the philanthropy chair for the pre-law fraternity, Phi Alpha Delta. He was in the Glee club last semester and still tries to find ways to sing and perform.
Looking to the future
The school supplies drive was just the first step for Hugs. The next step is a medical drive for the summer of 2016.
Choi was an AIDS educator promoting HIV and AIDS awareness in the Seattle school district during high school.
He plans to take this experience to Tanzania. Because of the increasing HIV epidemic in Tanzania – about 1.6 million people there are living with AIDS – he wants to supply Tanzanians with basic sexual health supplies and education about STD prevention methods.
In the meantime, Choi and Liu stress that college students can help.
“It’s important for colleges to take on these missions because schools have geared our generation in a certain direction,” Choi said. “It forces us to think there are only certain majors or education systems that lead you to success.”
Choi said it’s not only adults or educated people who can help those in need.
“I want to tell people that they don’t need a crazy background, an insane amount of talent or a whole lot of money to share, inspire and empower less fortunate,” Choi said.
Choi emphasizes that working with Hugs also helps empower students in the United States as they work to create positive change.
And it’s easy to do so, according to Choi and Liu.
Liu said students should go through their dorms and bedrooms and donate items they no longer need.
“A pen with no ink will be used to its end in Tanzania,” Liu said.
Cantlon has never been to Tanzania but has watched Hugs grow over the past year.
“Even though the organization is still at its ground level, it has already made an incredible impact,” Cantlon said. “I know for a fact that Hugs for Tanzania will be brought to new heights and be able to help children all over Tanzania and other parts of the world.”
Cantlon said she hopes to visit Tanzania some day.
“This organization is a representation of things that many of us have taken for granted … These resources can make a difference to others,” Cantlon said.
Being in Tanzania clarified what Choi wants to do for the rest of his life. He always wanted to work in the global field and be a part of the United Nations. After this year’s trip, all he can think about is what’s next.
After graduation, Choi hopes to attend Georgetown School of Foreign Service. He wants to feed his “adventurous” soul and find a story in every developing nation.
As for short-term, Choi hopes that because of Hugs for Tanzania, he can soon tell his friend Peter that he can go back to school.
Gabriela Julia is the senior features editor and can be reached at email@example.com