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Local landscape architect helps design school in Tanzania

Tom Neils contributes to dormitories, waterline infrastructure

The Engaruka English Medium Primary School in Tanzania is seen in May 2022. Local Tom Neils assisted in designing a dormitory for the students.
Tom Neils/Courtesy photo

Tom Neils believes in human resources. For the landscape architect of Silverthorne’s Neils Lunceford, connection with others can be more valuable than money or a natural resource.

Neils is originally from central Illinois but would visit Colorado when he was younger and fell in love with life in the West. He moved to Summit County in 1976, working on the landscaping at Keystone Resort. He met Larry Lunceford there, and they co-founded Neils Lunceford in 1980.

“We come out for the natural resources, but quickly and soon I found out that the real natural resources are the people that are here,” Neils said. “… Everybody almost has a story that, you know, their car broke down and somebody took them in and they never left. … The residents are just so lucky to have this community of people here.”



Neils has always enjoyed gardening, however, it was taking a concept through the design process and creating a finished project that attracted him to landscape architecture. While he left Neils Lunceford in 2006, he recently got to see a yearslong project come to fruition when he visited the Engaruka English Medium Primary School in the Arusha region of Tanzania.

Neils helped design new dormitories for the girls of the coed Maasai school, and May was the first time he was able to since the coronavirus pandemic. His design focus shifted from exterior flowerbeds to interior to student beds because of a safari he took in 2019.



Neils’ trip guide, Abby Olemisiko, took the group on a brief tour of the school. His wife, Martha Olemisiko, runs the Engaruka Community Initiative Organization that focuses on the school and other educational and business programs for women. Neils formed a bond with the Olemisikos and had planned to return the following year until the pandemic happened.

Instead, he would talk with Abby Olemisiko a couple of times a week and ended up designing the new girls dorm. The dorms provide safety and convenience, and they allow students to stop sleeping in bunk beds in a classroom.

The school currently has 185 students total. It started with just a class of preschoolers in 2018 learning English and Swahili, and it will eventually cap at seventh grade as each class graduates.

Neils sent his plans to the Olemisikos, who submitted the plans to a local architect for final details, such as converting feet to meters, and it was then delivered to the district for approval.

They also submitted the plans to the Maasai Education Foundation, a nonprofit located in Virginia, which would conduct fundraising in phases to coincide with the phased construction plans.

The foundation formed in spring 2018 after — like Neils — meeting the Olemisikos on a safari. According to Dr. Theo Dillaha, foundation board chairperson and professor emeritus of biological systems engineering at Virginia Tech, they have provided almost half a million dollars in funding so far to mainly the school, but also to sponsoring some students.

“Our ultimate goal is for the school to somehow become self-supporting,” Dillaha said, adding that the foundation provides about 30% of annual operating funds for the school. “ … 99% of the money we raise goes to Tanzania. We have no paid staff. … Our biggest expense is wire transfer fees to send money to Tanzania.”

When Neils visited this year, he was able to walk through the new dorm and discuss what to do differently for the future boys dorm and other buildings. For instance, they may add another bathroom, more floor drains to help cleaning and better ventilation.

However, the next major project is to construct a waterline to the school along with a storage tank. Neils said the current source is not consistent or reliable, and by time water reaches the school it has poor volume and pressure.

“The water situation at the school is very bad right now as we sometime run the school for two days without water,” Abby Olemisiko wrote in an email.

While cost estimates fluctuate, Dillaha said fundraising for the waterline is pretty much complete. Now, the foundation is focusing on its midyear matching fundraiser for operational costs, along with raising funds for mattresses and linens for the dorms. Also on the list are more solar panels and batteries so photovoltaic lights can stay on longer in the evenings and provide extra light for early mornings.

For more information and to donate, visit MaasaiEducationFoundation.org.

Tom Neils, left, stands with Abby Olemisiko. Neils was inspired to help the Engaruka English Medium Primary School in Tanzania after going on a safari with Olemisiko in 2019.
Tom Neils/Courtesy photo

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