Holy Angels Africa trips inspire teacher’s heart for animal conservation

| Susan Budig for The Catholic Spirit | July 2, 2015 | 0 Comments
Dave Marshak, a social studies teacher and girls soccer coach at Holy Angels in Richfield and an avid conservationist, shows children video he took while visiting Tanzania in 2013. Courtesy Dave Marshak

Dave Marshak, a social studies teacher and girls soccer coach at Holy Angels in Richfield and an avid conservationist, shows children video he took while visiting Tanzania in 2013. Courtesy Dave Marshak

The Academy of Holy Angels in Richfield begins each year with a theme to provide focus for their teachers as they design their lesson plans. In 2007, the theme was Care for God’s Creation. It was something that stayed with Dave Marshak, who was then a new social studies teacher and girls soccer coach. It was still in his mind five years later as he pointed and aimed at a tawny lioness in Tanzania. When he was sure of his shot, he pulled the shutter on his camera.

“She was probably less than 10 feet away,” Marshak, 37, recounted, calling taking the photo his “thunderbolt moment.” “That moment when she was looking at me, I was looking at her . . . these things are slipping away from us. I felt compelled.”

He went from a “conservationist at heart” to an activist, he said.

By the time he encountered the lioness in 2012 while in Tanzania’s Mikumi National Park, he had been to Africa several times after his introduction to the continent in 2008. It was the first trip, however, where he had included Holy Angels soccer players. He’s brought back student groups twice for two-week trips and hopes to do more. The groups spend most of their time with children living in villages, and Holy Angels students have taught preschool, painted a church, and dug out and installed a well, among other projects. Marshak’s friend, Bethel University soccer coach Amanda Maxwell, has been leading trips to Africa for years and accompanies the Holy Angels groups.

Julia Zappa, a 2014 Holy Angels graduate and an incoming sophomore at the University of
St. Thomas in St. Paul, credited her senior trip to Tanzania for helping her be less selfish and self-centered.

“As a teen looking at colleges, our world can be so small and focused on grades and tests and college applications. The trip showed me that there [are] other things in the world beside me,” she said.

Zappa, 19 and a parishioner of Our Lady of Grace in Edina, said Marshak came to life as the plane landed in Tanzania. “It was midnight when we arrived, and I could have been scared traveling through the city at night, but he set the tone. His enthusiasm was infectious,” she said. “I’d definitely go back. The trip was amazing.”

Marshak’s passion for animal conservation also comes out during the trip’s safari.

“The safari piece started as something fun to do at the end, but that’s the part that resonated with me, going into the East African bush,” said Marshak, who, in addition to Tanzania, has traveled to Kenya, South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe. His lioness photo now appears on a wildlife conservation poster for The Ruaha Carnivore Project based in Tanzania, and his other work has since benefited other wildlife trusts.

The politics of animal conservation and exploitation moved the issue from a service project to Marshak’s personal mission. The World Wildlife Federation lists African elephant, black rhinoceros, and lion as endangered animals. Loss of habitat and poaching  — which experts say is driven by poverty — inhibit their ability to thrive. Marshak said local and national government corruption contributes to the threat.

Although the majesty of a 6-ton elephant or a 1-ton black rhino impresses most people, it’s not enough to protect them from poachers, who seek to profit from the sale of their tusks or horns. Contrary to popular notion, “there’s nothing easy about going into the bush and killing a rhino and elephant,” Marshak said.

Experts widely believe that the ivory trade has overtaken South African diamonds as the primary funding source for terrorists, who exchange the valuable materials for weapons. Ivory, they say, might have fueled deadly attacks such as the Westgate shopping mall mass murder in Nairobi, Kenya, in 2013.

In response, people can go on safari, Marshak said. Eco-tourism provides money for the community in a safe, legal way. “The No. 1 reason I do this is that I try to promote eco-tourism,” he said, “ . . . to be an advocate for Africa and try to get people to go there.”

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