August 16, 2006 - Hundreds of bare feet pattered the copper ground, running toward Lara Pirzynski's bus as it pulled into a rural village in central Angola.

Clapping, singing and smiling, the African children bombarded her with affection.

"If we only greeted the people we love half as nicely as they do strangers," Pirzynski said of her arrival at the village. "When we arrived, we were like celebrities. The Angolans are so thankful people have not forgotten them."

Pirzynski, an Oro Valley mom, gave up paved roads, running water and electricity to spend July in war-ravaged Angola. Traveling with Rise International, a non-profit group that provides humanitarian aid in rural Angola, she and about 20 other Americans from across the United States built schools and taught workshops on healthcare and AIDS.

Pirzynski's typical day in the Angolan bush started at about 6:30 a.m. Some days she'd walk 20 minutes, accompanied by an occasional goat or pig, to bathe in the river, but most days she did without.

A group of tireless women called "the mothers" had a breakfast of cornmeal mush and sweet potatoes prepared when Pirzynski and the other Americans awoke.

Most Rise International volunteers spent the days building a school for the local children, who otherwise don't get an education.

After 27 years of civil war, there just isn't much infrastructure left in Angola.

The civil war killed two million Angolans, and displaced another four million. It crumbled the cities and ripped apart village roads and buildings. Most children Pirzynski met lost parents to the war. And most parents lost their children.

But in 2002, gunfire ceased and some semblance of peace settled in its place. Refugees, who took shelter during the war in camps in nearby Namibia and Zambia, slowly began to filter back to their homeland.

Around that time, Pirzynski's sister, Lynn, and her husband, Andrew Cole, an Angola native then living in suburban Chicago, partnered with an Angolan church to build a school in a rural village.

Cole had returned to Angola with his father in 1997 when the war was believed to be over. The son of missionaries, Cole left Angola because of the war as a teenager. When he returned, the war-torn shape of his home horrified him. He and Lynn knew they had to do something to help.

Before they started building schools, they took trips in the late 1990s to refugee camps in Namibia to teach Angolans English, agriculture and knitting.

Soon after, Rise International was born. With the original ambition of building just one school, Rise has now built 68 schools and funded more than 100. It also sends shipping containers the size of a doublewide trailer full of clothes, food and supplies to villages in Angola.

Chicago-area high schools and churches have gotten involved raising money, sending supplies and a few high school kids to Africa. Recently Grace Community Church in Oro Valley raised $13,000 to fund construction of a school.

But for Lynn Cole, the chief of Rise International, each trip she makes to Angola is bittersweet.

Her partner and lifeline died two years ago, leaving her and their four children behind to carry out his dream. Andrew died in his sleep at their home in Illinois. He was 50.

"I don't know how she does it," Pirzynski said. "My sister has really been amazing. She carries on when still some days are filled with such loneliness."

Andrew Cole's ashes were taken back to Angola and the locals erected a memorial to honor him.

"We were married for 31 years when he died," Cole said. "We anticipated we'd do it for the rest of our lives. Going forward is horrendous, but it's what he would want. He would challenge us, so we've gone forward."

The Angolan people have suffered so much but still have love and appreciation for life, Cole said. She said the Angolans encourage her to go on.

"They're people who have learned how, through adversity and such sadness, to find joy," Pirzynski said.

Most children don't have shoes, or coats. They wear ripped t-shirts and only eat one meal a day. But the locals constantly showed appreciation to the American volunteers, Pirzynski said.

"They would give us gifts of live chickens or a goat," she said. "Once we drove in a car with a live goat. To us, it's sort of odd, but to them, that was a very sacrificial thank you gift."

When her trip neared its end, a saddened Pirzynski said she felt like the whole trip was a lesson in "do what you can" volunteerism. In doing what she could, as many as 700 children will learn to read and write.

But as Pirzynski left the village, it finished much the same way it started. Hundreds of little bare feet chased after her vehicle, this time waving goodbye.

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