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thomas farragher

In Africa, legacy of a Mass. teen lives on

Michela Harriman in Tanzania in 2003.
Michela Harriman in Tanzania in 2003. (Kristen Wainwright)

CAMBRIDGE — Even when she was a little girl, there was something magnetic about Michela Harriman. Her brown eyes impossibly big, she sought people out and she built sturdy bridges. She connected with people. Connections that were genuine, solid, and made to last.

“A real recruiter,’’ her father, Rick Harriman, called her.

She was reading by the first grade, discussing Ancient Greece by Grade 4, and developed a love for animals so deep that when she swam with the dolphins off Florida’s coast she pronounced it the happiest day of her life.

Through it all — tennis, squash, soccer, boarding school in Marlborough — she was smart and headstrong. A girl with a tough exterior and a heart of gold.

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During a family trip to Tanzania in 2003, she found out that the world had another side to it. A side where homes had earthen floors, women cooked over open fires, schools went without running water for months. A place where the blackboards were warped and there was little shelter from the rain.

“That was kind of a shock to all of us,’’ her mother, Kristen Wainwright, told me this week. “And that had a huge impact on Michela.’’

Two years later, she was a rising high school senior with dreams of film school when she died in a one-car crash after, police theorized, she swerved to avoid a deer. Through the haze of grief and loss, her parents crafted an obituary. In lieu of flowers, they asked for donations to help build a classroom in Tanzania.

Within days, $76,000 poured in. And the seeds of Michela’s movement had been planted.

“We sat as a family and said, ‘Let’s do this right,’ ’’ Rick Harriman said. Doing it right meant doing what the Tanzanian villagers needed and wanted. Focusing on education. Building bridges. Bringing people together.

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The fruit of those social justice seeds can be seen in the Ganako Secondary School in the Karatu District in rural Tanzania. The school needed a dining room that could serve as a community center. Initial donations would pay for half of that. Fund-raisers were organized. School kids sold lemonade. The building was dedicated six years ago.

The needs are still vast. Wells need to be drilled. A new kitchen is envisioned. But reinforcements have arrived. Babson College has stepped in with an entrepreneurial program led by Babson students. The college’s fifth weeklong workshop begins in January.

“It’s exciting,’’ Rick Harriman told me this week when we talked in the living room of his home here. “So little does so much.’’

Kristen Wainwright said she can feel her daughter’s spirit guiding the efforts.

“Michela is at our side the whole time,’’ she said. “It’s bigger than Michela, but it’s so in her spirit. She would be so mind-blown by what’s happening. She’d be over there fixing stuff. She would be — and maybe is — completely pleased.’’

On the last day of her life, before she jumped into the car that would careen into a median and flip over into a clear summer night on a remote Vermont roadway, Michela Harriman sat down to write her college essay.

She imagined herself as a beret-wearing filmmaker, eyeglasses on a beaded chain around her neck, traveling to Tanzania to document life in a poor village hidden deeply away from the eyes of the world.

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It was a poignant, wonderfully detailed lyrical effort written by a young woman with wisdom and not a little whimsy.

“In my own films I can leave this world for a moment if it becomes too noisy or crowded or scary,’’ she wrote as a 17-year-old perched on life’s launching pad. “I can fall in love when I’m lonely or be loved when I’m forgotten. I can talk to that someone I miss or change a part of the past I regret. I think maybe it’s freedom I want above all else.’’

There are kids in a Tanzanian village who dream of their freedom, too. And they are at work shaping it today in a shining new place that everybody calls Michela’s Room.


Thomas Farragher is a Globe columnist. He can reached at thomas.farragher@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @FarragherTom.