From Santa Fe To Zambia: Neil Lyon Starts Charitable School Meal Program

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Santa Fe Haute Residence member Neil Lyon, and his wife Cindy, recently traveled to four African countries for a 17-day safari adventure. Not only did the Lyons and great friends and travel partners, Bill and Margi Greenfield have the time of their lives, they decided to significantly improve the lives of over 330 primary school students as a thank you to those who made the trip so special.

They became a part of the culture and soul of Zambia by donating the funds necessary for a daily second meal for the students at the Twabuka Primary School. By piggybacking on the efforts of a group from Italy that started funding lunches in 2015, the students now have a more nutritious lunch with protein and vegetables and now a daily breakfast as well. Plus, another cook’s job was created with the new funds. Offering students two healthy daily meals that they can count on does more than just cure rumbling stomachs—it increases attendance, promotes great focus and learning and makes for a healthier community.

Below is an interview conducted by OutsideGo, the safari planning company that organized the Lyon/Greenfield adventure.

Outside Go: What inspired the trip?

Cindy: I’ve always wanted to go to Africa. Our last name is Lyon and I’m a Leo, and so I love the big kitties. I was turning 60 and Neil asked what I wanted to do for my birthday. I said I wanted to go see cats, and he said “you want to go to the zoo?” “No, I want to go to Africa!” That’s how innocently this trip started.

Neil: We saw lions, cheetahs, a leopard with her protected cubs. Hundreds of giraffes, hundreds of zebras, a million impalas, and a hundred elephants in one sitting as they crossed right in front of us on a dirt road. We walked with the white rhinos. It was an incredible trip.

Cindy: We knew we would get excited about and love to see the wildlife, but we didn’t know in advance how much we would love the African people. At each camp you visit on safari, the guides have their work cut out for them. By the time we were at our third camp we had seen a lot of things. Our guide asked us what we still wanted to see, and the one thing was a leopard. He was determined that he was going to find us a leopard. It took him a couple of days–10 hours of tracking to be exact–and he found one. He was so determined.

O: Tell us about your visit to the Twabuka School in Zambia.

N: We went there with a suitcase full of school supplies and solar lights. We were going to Twabuka School to drop it off on what was scheduled to be a 15-minute visit, but we had no expectation that we would do anything beyond that.

C: One of the things that was really impactful when we went to the school was that as we drove into the school all these little children just ran joyfully along the vehicle smiling and saying “thank you for come see us!” There was no sense of entitlement, there was just joy and gratitude.

N: They were the sweetest greeters you could ever have. It was so wonderful. That set the tone for how we felt when we got to the school a few minutes later. There was definitely no grand plan to doing anything other than deliver the school supplies but we were so inspired by the kids and teachers we met. The need was so great and we knew that for a totally manageable amount of money we could really change things. We found out that there was an Italian musician named Federico Spinucci that had started funding one meal a day at Twabuka (which we were told was the one meal that many of these kids got on any particular day), and so we talked to one of the people we met at the school. I said I’d like to be in touch with this musician guy, who is in fact an attorney based in Rome. Largely because of my interactions with Federico and knowing that he had vetted the situation and had been providing funds for three years, that gave us the confidence to say let’s just do it.

That morning we had gone to Victoria Falls and then on a bush walk with white rhinos and two park rangers. Just imagine the contrast, going to this school and having these beautiful kids chasing our vehicle and welcoming us. On our way back to Toka Leya (the safari camp), what started as a couple of elephants walking in front of our car ended up being so many that we lost count at a 100. Some of them were mere feet in front of the vehicle.

C: That was our first day of the trip.

O: So you decided to donate a second meal a day to every student–over 300 total–for the next three years. Tell us more about what this commitment means.

C: While we were visiting we learned that the woman who started the school had at first had trouble getting children to attend. But once they started providing food, attendance went way up because the kids could eat (which they might not have at home). And the product of that, partly because of education and partly because the kids were at school, was the AIDS rate in the village went way down. The impact of education is huge here.

N: You could also tell by our interactions at the school that many Americans and Europeans had visited this school and said that they’d help, but that very few had really followed through. I could sense that even with Federico, and that he couldn’t be sure that we were really going to commit. I told him on one of our Skype calls that while I’m sure most didn’t follow through, we were going to. Once all realized we were serious about helping, everyone’s gratitude went through the roof.

C: That’s why we made the commitment to provide the second meal for three years.

O: Have you always given back like this?

N: We have always supported local non-profits in Santa Fe that have focused on underserved kids, and in some cases rescue animals. I’m with Sotheby’s International Realty and last year while we were at an international conference, one of the speakers we heard was one of the founders of a non-profit called New Story. New Story builds houses in third-world countries where they have tremendous housing problems. They don’t just go build a house—they work with local governments and local contractors to buy land and create neighborhoods and villages. This 20-minute talk inspired Cindy and me to buy a home for a family, who we later learned lived in Aquas Calientes, Mexico, with our business partner at Sotheby’s International Realty. We felt so good about it, I’m sure it had an impact on us when we went to Zambia.

O: How can our readers help the kids at Twabuka School?

N: It would be great if we could generate the funds for a 5 or 10-year commitment, or double the amount of money we are sending now to provide things like solar panels for electricity for the school. It’s such a manageable amount of money that you can literally change someone’s life in a day. Why wouldn’t we want to do that?

For more information contact Neil D. Lyon at 505-660-8600 or [email protected]

Neil D. Lyon is the exclusive agent representing the Santa Fe, New Mexico real estate market as a member of the Haute Residence Real Estate Network. View all of his listings here.

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