Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Role of a Lifetime: Heading Back to Africa, Chicago Actress Britni Tozzi Proves Activism is No Act

It's ironic that the letter "I" is so prevalent in Britni Tozzi's name, for she has no real desire--in fact, nearly an aversion--to draw attention to herself.

This despite being an actress who has starred in national commercials and an activist who who will soon be embarking, solo, on her second self-funded humanitarian mission to central Africa.

Heck, even though she graciously agreed to meet me for an interview after an online inquiry about her altruistic pursuits--as cited in a theater program bio--she spent the first hour of our conversation asking about me.

So I imagine it will make her blush (and/or cringe) for me to say that I've rarely spent time in the company of anyone so beautiful, and I'm not even referencing her dazzling good looks.

But as someone who devotes an inordinate amount of time, effort and her own money to those in need--while being exhaustively deferential to those relative few who give even more--Britni Tozzi warrants plenty of admiration and appreciation, even if she's endearingly demure about meriting the spotlight.

Thus, although despite her reticence Britni quite eloquently expounds on her impressive undertakings via her own blog--britnitozzi.blogspot.com, through which those inclined can contribute to her relief organization, Global Empathy Now; initial funding will help feed children at a school she worked at in Arusha, Tanzania--it is my pleasure to introduce you to this remarkable young woman.

Serendipitously, I had discovered Britni when I saw a stage musical version of The Wedding Singer by Circle Theater in Oak Park, where she played Linda, a shallow, superficial minx who is basically her antithesis. While I certainly found her attractive, and well-sung, I took particular note of this line in her program bio: "Offstage, Britni is an active volunteer for schools in Africa. Visit www.BritniTozzi.com for more!"

So I visited her website, which mainly bespeaks her acting resume but links to her blog, which is almost exclusively about her humanitarian work. Impressed, I reached out to see if perhaps I could learn more and write about her here, and upon doing so, I'm exponentially more impressed.

"I always knew I wanted to 'do something.' My parents instilled me with a deep sense of gratitude and helping people who are facing great challenges makes me even more grateful."

So revealed Britni when I asked why, at just 24 and already juggling a full-time job and a developing acting career, she is so devout in seeing far beyond her own self and taking action to improve lives halfway around the world.

"I've long been intrigued by Africa, so instead of just thinking and talking about it, late last year I decided to go there," she explained. "I did some research, pooled some of my savings with generous support from family & friends and within a matter of weeks coordinated my own mission to Tanzania."

There Britni connected with an organization called the International Volunteer HQ (IVHQ) and spent the bulk of her time teaching a variety of subjects to children at the CHETI school (an acronym formed by Children Health Education Team Inspiration). 

According to Britni, who in earning a Theater degree at Chicago's Columbia College was class valedictorian, her acting skills--honed under the esteemed tutelage of David Cromer, Sheldon Patinkin, Barbara Robertson and Sean Graney, among others--came in quite handy in teaching English to her young Swahili-speaking pupils.

"Sometimes I had to pantomime objects--like a ball or a book--to help the kids better grasp translations from their native tongue."

Using funds she had raised and contributed to, Britni was able to facilitate the construction of 20 new desks for the school and the purchase of numerous supplies, including books, notebooks, pencils and rulers. You can read her account here, which also conveys how she took it upon herself to develop a Porridge Program to feed kids at the school, many of whom she had found to be malnourished. The smiles on the faces in the photo at right express the significance of this far better than I can, and the program continues to this day (and again, anything you may wish to donate would be extraordinarily appreciated).

As Britni wrote about here, she also befriended a man named Kaka, who was the security guard at the home where she and other volunteers stayed. In being invited to his home, she was astonished to learn that Kaka lived with his wife and four children in a single small room, as seen at left.

So she subsequently solicited additional funds from 18 generous donors, with which Kaka's family was able to buy land to eventually build a new home.

As one might imagine, Britni's initial excursion was not without trepidations and tribulations, including a case of shingles discovered upon her return home (as she recapped here). But steadfast that the considerable challenges are "entirely worth it," after Christmas with her family in Cleveland, she will once again be heading to Africa on December 26.

"In weighing various ways to provide assistance, I decided I wanted to get involved with HIV/AIDS treatment, education and prevention programs in Kenya."

This is how a girl who lists National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation among her favorite movies will be spending the three weeks following the holiday. (To be fair, she also lists Hotel Rwanda, Life Is Beautiful, The Pianist & Schindler's List and shared with me how looking at Holocaust photos as a child deeply affected her.)

After a day's worth of flights (from Cleveland to Chicago to Amsterdam to Nairobi), she will arrive in Kenya and be met--assuming all goes smoothly--by individuals from Sub Saharan Volunteers & Adventures. Through this organization, she will work with HIV-infected children in an orphanage and also plans to venture into the slums of Nairobi to speak with Kenyans about preventative care.

Similar to her first expedition, Britni will spend approximately three weeks in Africa and she is extremely grateful to the Chicago law firm where she works (as a Legal Assistant) for allowing her the flexibility to pursue both her acting and activist passions. (She is also effusive in her gratitude to the many family and friends who support and encourage her often daunting efforts.) 

Even more than she was able to on her last trip, when she is in Kenya and Tanzania Britni hopes "to learn more about the women. They're fascinating to me."

As, with apologies for gushing, she is to me. And I just met her. Certainly, and admiringly, I already have several friends with big hearts who are doing great things to improve lives and better the world. But in one conversation Britni espoused a worldview I champion as well as anyone I've ever encountered.

"Appreciate more, need less." 

As we head into the holidays, hopefully grateful for what we have even amidst the ravages of the economy, I can't think of a more beautifully selfless sentiment.

So even if Britni earnestly stresses, "I'm no Mother Teresa," not only does she devote a bit of each day to her relief efforts--including working toward the launch of a website and marketing program for Global Empathy Now--but I can't help but have a little more faith in a future in which she plans "to do this for the rest of my life."

Besides, as far as I know, Mother Teresa couldn't sing, dance and act. And she sure didn't look like a movie star.

(All photos from BritniTozzi.com and britnitozzi.blogspot.com)


Anonymous said...

Wow, Seth. as Britni's mother, I could never have captured her essence in words as you have done. You have truly identified and described her character and heart accurately.
Thank you for this beautiful article. (It made ME blush with pride!)- Paula Chess

Seth Arkin said...

Dear Paula,

Thank you so much for the kind words. It was an absolute pleasure meeting Britni and as you already well know, you have much to be proud of.

I can only imagine the concern you must feel when your daughter goes to places we can barely pronounce, let alone envision. Britni knows this too and openly expressed how grateful she is for your love & support, despite any trepidations.

The world is a better place for Britni doing what she does and clearly this must be a reflection on you.


The Egel Nest said...

Britni is amazing...amen! :)