WHEN I FIRST met Rick Asselta, a teacher at an alternative high school in Connecticut, he had been diagnosed with esophageal cancer and had a one-in-two chance of surviving. That he lived through his operation is a miracle. To encourage other cancer sufferers, Rick joined the Achilles Track Club, a New York City-based international organization that brings together disabled athletes. At the same time, he signed on to spend a summer in Tanzania with our Roots & Shoots team—a volunteer program I established ten years ago, which now runs environmental and humanitarian projects in 68 countries, from Dubai to China. He intended to start an Achilles Club in Dar es Salaam, but did much more.
Toward a better place: Jane Goodall in transit from her research station at Gombe National Park
Shocked by the number of handicapped Tanzanians, many of them polio victims, Rick organized the country's first Sports Day for disabled athletes. No one believed he could pull it off. Despite repeated setbacks, he secured the necessary permissions, convinced the national stadium to waive its fees, and gathered support from companies and individuals free of charge while other Roots & Shoots volunteers worked overtime.
In August 1998, a week before the event, terrorists bombed the U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya. Americans were advised to leave, but Rick stayed. When the day arrived, he expected a slim turnout. Instead, 700 disabled athletes and 1,000 spectators showed up. The participants raced in wheelchairs and on crutches. They boxed while sitting on the ground. It was a spectacular day.
Two years later, in September 2000, Rick's biennial event gained even greater magnitude: 13,000 fans watched 2,000 athletes, while 1,000 volunteers assisted. This fall's event promises to be even larger, with participants from Ghana, South Africa, and Kenya.
The tremendous spirit of volunteers like Rick has contributed immeasurably to my life's work. Once, in Tanzania's Gombe National Park, more than 100 baboons came down with a deadly venereal disease. A British veterinarian named Ken Pack flew from England to help me treat the animals. We hid in the bushes and waited for the baboons to come close enough to shoot them in the rump with tranquilizers. We eventually saved them all.
Perhaps the volunteer who has made the most difference in my life is my mother, Vanne Goodall. In 1960, when government officials refused to let me live alone in Gombe, she joined me. Her presence in those early months was critical in cementing good relationships with the local people; she opened a much-needed first-aid clinic, dispensing aspirin and Epsom salts and earning the endearing title "the white witch doctor" of the forest. Her work freed me to conduct what would become a landmark chimpanzee study.
"How do you get your energy?" some ask, shocked by my schedule of 300 days a year on the road. I tell them that it's because I am continually inspired by the amazing people I meet—people who attempt impossible tasks and succeed because they never give up. People like Rick Asselta and Ken Pack—a whole quiet army of volunteers who spend their lives helping others. At a time when all of us need to be ambassadors for compassion and tolerance, a volunteer vacation is a wonderful way to nurture and keep alive in your heart what really matters in this world of ours.