Altruistic Penn State student makes a difference in Tanzania

April 18, 2008

University Park, Pa. -- This summer will be Penn State senior Michael Dissen's second journey across the globe to the small village of Imbaseni, Tanzania. An elementary education major from Pittsburgh, Dissen's first trip to the eastern country in Africa was in 2007, with other Penn State students and professors in the women's studies department who were interested in outreach beyond conventional borders.

While Dissen was there teaching English in a classroom and working with children in an orphanage about a mile from the school, he met a boy named Steven who changed Dissen's life.

"Steven was friendly but very shy," said Megan Nesper, a Penn State journalism and women's studies student who also was on the trip. "I spoke with him a little, but I think that it was Mike that he felt the most comfortable opening up to."

Like most of the orphans Dissen met, Steven's parents died of AIDS. Although Steven's other relatives took in his siblings, Dissen suspects they didn't take Steven in because of his disabilities. The boy, who they think was then around 14 years old -- no records were available to confirm this -- was bowlegged, and walking caused pain in his hips and back.

The orphans walked a mile between the school and orphanage every day, except for Steven. He had to stay at the school all of the time since he couldn't walk far. Playing was out of the question for him, and when other kids would take part in sports in a nearby field, Steven would stay at the school alone. While Dissen was there, he would carry the boy to the field so he could at least watch the other children play.

"He didn't get much attention, and when people in the town saw me carrying him to different places, they'd apologize to me for it," Dissen said.

The kids in Steven's school were used to helping him, carrying him up and down the school steps, helping him to the bathroom and being nice to him in general. But to Dissen, Steven's problem looked fixable. After a lot of research, Dissen found a clinic nearby with an orthopedic surgeon who came in on Saturdays. Dissen took Steven to the surgeon and learned that his Achilles tendons weren't long enough, so his heels weren't touching the ground. The surgeon told Dissen a simple surgery and special shoes would cure Steven's problems. The surgery, he said, would be about $300-400.

With that information, Dissen was hopeful. Raising those kind of funds for one little boy, so he could lead a more normal life and play with his friends, couldn't be too hard. Although Dissen would be leaving Tanzania the next week, he told family and friends about Steven's complications and was able to arrange for a man in Steven's town to take him to his surgery and to help him out. The man, Paulo William Mlumbi, 35, created an official nongovernmental organization to bring the community together. Bega kwa Bega, or Shoulder to Shoulder, is an arts-based youth program that seeks to educate about the environment, health and culture through community programs and exchanges.

Once back in America, Dissen learned that the procedure had to be done at a hospital, much further from Steven's home than the clinic he had originally visited for his diagnosis. Transportation in Tanzania is much more expensive than in America, which added to the bill for Steven's surgery. He also needed to stay in the hospital for an extended time as well as eat nutritious foods to help his body recover from the surgery and physical therapy. Dissen, with the help of Nesper and other friends, ended up needing to raise $3,000 for Steven's surgery. Dissen opened a bank account specifically for funds raised for Steven and wired the money to Mlumbi as he raised it.

"Mike was really the driving force behind this. His heart is really in the right place," said Nesper, who also raised funds for Steven's surgery and recuperation. "I hope he can get the therapy he needs, but realistically, I don't know what's possible. For Steven, just having food and clothing might be more of an issue."

The surgery itself did help Steven with his walking, but in January 2008, Dissen learned the heartbreaking news that Steven was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy, a hereditary disease that causes progressive muscle weakness. Dissen's family and friends helped him raise funds for a wheelchair for Steven, but Dissen said it's hard for Steven to navigate around his town, which has dirt roads filled with hard rocks. It's Dissen's goal to get Steven physical therapy to possibly alleviate some of the symptoms brought on by muscular dystrophy. Right now, Steven is back at school but isn't getting any physical therapy treatment.

Ultimately, Dissen would like to see a clinic for physical therapy attached to the school, to help more children with varying ailments, although he knows that will take a lot of work. This summer when Dissen returns to Tanzania with Penn State students and faculty, he can see for himself how Steven is doing. Dissen hopes to bring with him clothes, shoes and other donations from his community, to give to those in Imbaseni who are in short supply of all resources.

To learn more about Steven or to ask how you can help those living in Imbaseni, please visit Dissen's blog at

  • Dissen with Stephen, in summer 2007

    IMAGE: Penn State

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated November 18, 2010