From Westfield to South Africa: Middle school teacher travels to wildlife conservations with grant money


By Anna Skinner

Tami Medsker has always had a passion for animals. Her four dogs, two cats and horse are all rescues. So when the Westfield Middle School English as a Second Language teacher received a grant from the Lilly Endowment Teacher Creativity Fellowship, she knew she would spend the $12,000 on a photography trip to South Africa.

The grant allows 100 educators from Indiana to take part in professional or personal activities. It was not Medsker’s first time applying for the grant, but her sixth. Previously, she had applied alongside another teacher with hopes of backpacking across Europe. However, when Medsker realized that she would be applying alone this year, she changed her course of action.

“I’m a big animal advocate, and I wanted to step outside of small town and go global,” she said. “I wanted to experience something outside of the states. (The grant) did not have to be education related, and it could be very personal to you. I knew I wanted to go to a conservation, and I knew I wanted to go to South Africa.”

Medsker did her research and settled on the Wildlife Act, a conservation in Mkuze and Tembe, South Africa, that was not unethical and also tried to make positive impacts on endangered species, such as rhinos, wild dogs and elephants. She spent her $12,000 on a D5300 camera, a zoom lens, a wildlife photography workshop in Montana and her plane ticket to South Africa and stay at the Wildlife Act conservations.

While Medsker spent two weeks each in Mkuze and Tembe, she took photographs and promised that once she returned to America, she would inform others on the illegal poaching and snaring taking place in South Africa, even on the conservations.

“In seven days, six rhinos were poached,” she said. “It’s highly illegal, but it’s still happening, and I think that’s why I wanted to be a part of it and do something that made some kind of impact. I want to share this with my students. I would really like for the kids here, even though they’re a continent away, to be aware of what’s going on. I want to cultivate their passion, and hopefully they’ll be kids that will go there in the future and be a part of it.”

In addition to poaching, residents of South Africa set snares for antelopes, which they use for  food. However, often times wild dogs, cheetahs or other animals are caught in the traps and killed or maimed.

Although Medsker can only reapply for the Lilly Endowment grant every five years once she has received it, she plans on returning to South Africa next year.

“It would be interesting to go back in a year and see my animals,” she said. “It’ll be interesting to see who’s still there and who has survived because it’s such an ongoing issue. You get to know them, and you have their pictures, and you know their stories, and then you hear what happens to them and it brings it home.”

Meet Tami Medsker

Age: 47.

Family: Daughter Stephanie Duffy, 24.

Pets: Four dogs, two cats and a horse.

Lives: Westfield.

Works: Westfield Middle School. She has been an English as a Second Language teacher for eight years.

Fun fact: She attended Westfield Washington Schools for grades K-3 and then grades 6-10.

Walter Grathwohl

In addition to Tami Medsker, a Westfield Middle School English as a Second Language teacher, Walter Grathwohl, a Shamrock Springs Elementary School teacher, also received the Lilly Endowment Teacher Creativity grant. Grathwohl used the grant for a bike trip through the Canyonlands National Park in Utah and Jedediah Smith State Park in California. He attended a bicycle maintenance retreat at the United Bicycle Institute in Oregon and launched a bicycle awareness week and bicycle summer camp at Shamrock Springs Elementary School.


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