Christina O'Haver, The Union Democrat

Geanie Eaton has lived in Tuolumne County for 56 years, but her heart remains in Africa.

The 77-year-old retired teacher visited Kigoma, Tanzania, in East Africa last summer for the third time in five years to work with students and teachers at public schools.

Eaton, along with retired San Jose administrator Mary Freer and retired Soulsbyville teacher Evalyn Levering, spent six weeks unpacking boxes full of donated school supplies and showing teachers and students how to use the materials.

Eaton and Freer spent two years before the trip collecting the supplies from educators and residents around the county.

"Because of the very kind people of Tuolumne County, we were able to ship two (40-foot-long) containers full of school supplies," Eaton said.

The women were inspired to send materials overseas after visiting the town of Kigoma in 2010 for a workshop and realizing how few supplies the students had.

"I saw how many kids they had in a class and how they had nothing," she said. "They had a pencil and a spiral (notebook)."

Eaton said Kamala Primary School, located in the village of Kamala in Kigoma, has about 1,400 kids from kindergarten to sixth grade and only about 24 teachers. The kindergarten class alone has one teacher for 150 students.

Many of the items donated had been sitting in storage closets because they were outdated for Tuolumne County students.

Eaton and Freer were able to give new life to tape recorders, listening centers, chalkboards and textbooks.

They also traveled down Lake Tanganyika by helicopter to deliver supplies to Bangue Primary School, a public school in the village of Bangue, which was dedicated to the women. The library was dedicated to Levering.

The three women took remaining supplies to a school in village of Kabeze, which they traveled to by boat on the lake.

Eaton described the children in Kigoma as appreciative and eager to learn.

Although they live in mud huts with dirt floors and carry water in buckets on their heads, they do not have "poor me syndrome," she said.

"Over there, I'm called Bi Bi Geanie, which means Grandma Geanie … I miss hearing that," she said.

Eaton first visited Kigoma in 2008 to assist Kamala Primary School, then returned in 2010 to participate in a workshop held by Hope of the Nations - a Tanzania-based ministry started by former Tuolumne County residents Harold and Coni Knepper.

Geanie has also visited Kyrgyzstan in Central Asia three times to work with teachers through the International School Project - an organization that aims to provide professional training for teachers through curricula based on Christianity.

Eaton knew as a little girl that she wanted to be a teacher.

She taught in Tuolumne County for 30 years, working for Sonora Elementary and Curtis Creek school districts before retiring in 1998.

She grew up in Southern California and attended San Jose State University, where she received a bachelor's degree in elementary education and met her late husband, Garth.

The couple moved to the Mother Lode after they both got teaching jobs in the county. Garth Eaton taught at Sonora High School for 45 years.

While growing up, Geanie Eaton spent much of her time hunting for geodes with her father. They would crack open the rocks they found and turn them into cabochons - gemstones that are shaped and polished but not faceted.

She has been a rockhound ever since and proudly displays a collection of rocks from her travels, including Tanzania and Kyrgyzstan, in her living room.

Eaton also has a large collection of antiques. Some of her favorite items are her butter churns (which she has actually used to make butter), an old-fashioned coffee grinder, a padded egg carton called the "egg insurance box" and Native American rugs and baskets.

Her other love is plants, which she grows in a greenhouse built by her husband behind her house.

Eaton can be found sitting at the table in the center of the room drinking a cup of coffee and talking to her thriving garden - or chasing her granddaughter's cow, "Big Mama," out of it.

The cement step leading down into the greenhouse is engraved with her family members names.

has four daughters, all of whom are teachers, a son and 14 grandchildren.

Several of her family members accompanied her on a safari in Kenya before she started visiting the continent to work with schools. It was her very first trip to Africa.

"We all fell in love with Africa," she said.

Eaton is not sure if she will return to Tanzania or Kyrgyzstan, partially because of a recent back surgery, but said her experiences have been extremely rewarding.

"I just like people," she said. "I've traveled all over the world just eating different foods and talking with different people. It's just fun."

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