Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Orphans help city woman see the big picture

Lives out her purpose in Tanzania

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It's a difficult time to be young and in search of a place in the world.

Particularly a place where finding a paycheque can seem more important than finding a purpose.

Which is why I want to share the story of how Tracy Tomchuk found her place in the world, which is to say the way most people's path in life usually unfold. Part plan, part serendipity.

And all mapped out in a larger way by something you can't download from a Google Maps directions app.

-- -- --

It was Tracy's initial plan -- obtaining her fine arts degree with a major in photography -- that explains in part why we are sitting together now, in a furnished corner of the Frame Arts Warehouse, where Tanzania -- An Exhibit of Photographs by Tracy Tomchuk has been on display since last Thursday. Of all the distinctly African colour photos of people, landscapes and even one of an elephant framed alone against a distant mountain, there is one picture that stands out to me. It is the portrait of a three-year-old orphan girl, her face gaily painted but her eyes sad, her mouth pouting, as if about to cry.

Her name is Gracie.

And she is one of as many as 120 children who reside or attend school at the Rift Valley Village in Tanzania.

Why am I so drawn to this portrait?

Perhaps, in part, because the little girl in the photo seems so representative of Tracy's life, both before and after her journey to Gracie's East African homeland.

I begin with a beginning kind of question, not knowing how thematic the answer will be.

"What is your first memory of life?" "A nightmare I had when I was a child," she answers. "Up to a year ago," she adds, "I've had nightmares every single night of my life."

Tracy thinks she was about Gracie's age when she had that first one.

She describes the dream-like scenario first. There are two Shetland ponies standing in the shallows of Lake Manitoba. The ponies are balancing a large plank of wood on their backs. And little Tracy is clutching an egg timer. Then she describes why it became a nightmare.

"I had to build a house on top of the big plank of wood before the sand ran out of the egg timer or my family would be gone."

Tracy provides the analysis.

"I think it was my perception of what my responsibilities for the family was. I needed to take care of them."

But why would someone so young -- the youngest of three children spaced five years apart -- feel she had to look after the future of her family? Perhaps the nightmare had to do with an anxiety disorder she was born with, and has haunted her ever since. The nightmares have only been exacerbated by life experiences she seldom shares, events her parents Larry and Marianne don't know about.

"And I'm never going to tell them."

What Tracy seems to remember most vividly about how she was raised is how they allowed her to be who she was.

When she was six and seven Tracy recalls wearing bathing suits everywhere, the way other little girls wore dresses. When she was five she remembers parting her hair in the middle, drenching one side with water, and skipping off to kindergarten looking that way.

"And my mum let me do it. Every single day. I guess that's why I was an artist."

There was a time, though, when her parents became uncomfortable about who she was, or perhaps where she was going. Years later, after university, when Tracy decided to leave for Montreal to take a ceramics course, both her mum and dad were furious.

"Why do you do everything we don't want you to do?" is the way Tracy recalls their reaction.

And two years later, when she decided she wanted to travel, experience another culture, and volunteer -- and a woman she had met in Montreal gave her directions to an orphanage in Tanzania -- Tracy's parents were even more concerned.

In the end, in exchange for daily texts or Skype reassurances that she was OK, her father and mother reached out to help her get to Tanzania last year around this time.

"I never appreciated the way my parents loved me until I went to Tanzania."

Her father has helped her hang every photo in her exhibit.

But it was in Tanzania I suspect where Tracy learned how much helping others would help her. She cooked, and taught, and read bedtime stories to the children. And, fatefully, she nursed little Gracie when she fell from a top bunk and suffered a concussion.

"I was living out my purpose, and being a nurse and still doing my art."

It would be that experience over just a few months, coupled with her being accepted by a people and a culture where everyone is called sister, or brother, mother or father, that convinced Tracy she needed to get a nursing degree and return so she can help her adopted Tanzanian "family."

From a little girl's nightmare, to a young woman's dream come true.

"Tanzania gave me everything I was looking for," Tracy says.

Tanzania also helped rid her of something, though.

A lifetime of nightly nightmares.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 22, 2013 B2

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