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Helping AIDS orphans in Uganda

When Lynn S. Auerbach saw the movie ''Born Free" in 1971, she felt an instant connection with Africa. It took three decades to get there, but now the 56-year-old Newton native spends four months a year in Uganda helping children orphaned by AIDS.

''The AIDS pandemic has left many families with an elder grandmother to care for up to 15 children," said Auerbach, who launched Connect Africa Foundation to provide loans and educational resources to the guardians of AIDS orphans.

Over the course of a year, the foundation has provided the village of Kyaliiwajala with loans to start a mushroom farm, a chicken ranch, an embroidery co-op, and a piggery.

Auerbach first went to Uganda in 2004 through a volunteer program, doing some teaching and administering food aid.

One day at a village meeting where over 200 residents gathered, Auerbach had a translator ask, ''What is it that you want?"

''Income," a few of them responded.

Auerbach then arranged to meet with small groups of villagers to talk about business ventures and educating the children.

Through family and friends in Newton, she raised enough money to send three children she had been tutoring to school; next she encouraged friends back home to have their book clubs, school social action committees, and employers contribute seed money for the businesses.

Auerbach's husband, Sandy, a neurologist at Boston University Medical Center, suggested she turn her informal venture into a nonprofit foundation.

Far from the lush plains of Africa, Auerbach grew up surrounded by concrete in Brooklyn. She lived in a small apartment with her mother, grandmother, and grandfather. Her father had been institutionalized at age 27, after suffering a stroke that left him incapacitated. Auerbach was only 18 months old at the time.

As a child Auerbach didn't consider herself much of a student. Though she was ''street smart," she didn't learn to read until she was in sixth grade.

''In Brooklyn they just kept passing me and passing me," Auerbach said. ''It wasn't until my mother remarried and we moved to Patchogue, Long Island -- when the school was about to hold me back -- that I was given a tutor."

Auerbach had been told that her father had ''lost his memory," which in turn made her question her own abilities.

In school, she frequently got into trouble for talking and acting as the class clown. At home, she endured ''a very tumultuous relationship" with her mother.

Still, despite her problems in school, she was the first in her family to attend college. She majored in special education at Ohio State University, but there were plenty of distractions. ''It was the '60s; Kent State, marches in Washington, drugs and politics," said Auerbach.

While her husband attended medical school in New York City, Auerbach taught special education and obtained a master's degree in psychology. When they moved to Boston, Auerbach specialized in family violence and abuse at the Solomon Carter Fuller Mental Health Center.

''One of my first cases was a 5-year-old with gonorrhea," she said. ''It was the 1970s and people were just coming out with their stories of abuse."

Auerbach later earned a doctorate in clinical psychology and ran a private practice in Boston for 10 years. In addition to helping people heal emotionally through her counseling, she helped empower them by opening a chapter of Model Mugging, the women's self-defense program.

With her two children grown, her private practice closed, and her Model Mugging business sold, she was ready for Africa.

Though she says she would have no problem digging ditches and nailing down chicken wire, she sees herself doing the most good as a banker.

''After someone comes to see me about a business start-up, I send them home to write up a proposal," she said, explaining that Connect Africa doesn't just hand out wads of cash, but releases money as it is needed, such as to build a pen or purchase feed.

Her clients are people like Milka, a 70-year-old woman with eight grandchildren who is a budding chicken entrepreneur. ''She cannot speak English, nor does she know how to read or write," Auerbach said. ''Her grandson came to my house at least seven times until the numbers worked out."

Among the numbers: If the family lost more than 10 chicks out of the 200 they initially purchased, they'd go out of business.

''I think they slept with those chicks to make sure they were warm," Auerbach said.

So the girl from Brooklyn who had only one tree on her street has learned all about pigs, mushrooms, and chicks. And, in the process, she's learned how to teach a village to earn its keep.

For more information on the Connect Africa Foundation visit www.connect-africa.org or call 617-332-4476.

FROM NATICK TO THE GRAMMYS: Jim Riley, drummer and bandleader for the 2005 Grammy nominees Rascal Flatts, travels to gigs in a customized bus complete with showers and a satellite dish. Not bad for a guy who a decade ago was living in the back of his pickup truck.

Voted the 2005 Country Artist of the Year by Billboard Monitor, the Rascal Flatts have taken Riley far from Speen Street, where he grew up playing drums in the Natick High School Marching Band, the Greater Boston Youth Symphony, and the Massachusetts Youth Wind Ensemble.

''Band was my only saving social grace," said Riley. ''The fact that I could play drums so well was probably the only thing that kept me from being a complete dork."

No one can argue that Riley has certainly grown into himself. The 36-year-old blue-eyed drummer, whose Boston accent is giving way to a slight Southern drawl, now has security guards watching for overzealous fans during the shows.

At the urging of Jerry Ash, his high school band director, Riley studied percussion and jazz at the University of North Texas.

''I tried to keep myself involved in as many things as possible, playing in the jazz band, the wind ensemble, and the marching band," he said.

With a degree in music education, he got a job in 1994 teaching percussion to sixth- through 12th-graders in Coppell, Texas.

Though he enjoyed teaching, he was restless, afraid ''time would slip away and I'd become complacent."

With Nashville his ultimate goal, he tried making a living as a musician.

From the local club scene, he moved on to Kansas City, joining the country band Jimmy Dallas.

''All the guys were 60 and over," said Riley. ''It was a really great country music education. . . . When I got to Nashville I knew so much of the material that it was easy for me to slip into the local music scene."

Riley pulled into Nashville in 1997 with a suitcase, his drums, and his dog, Sydney. He parked his pickup in front of Boomtown Percussion, a drum shop owned by a man he had met at a trade show, and asked for a job.

He was hired and allowed to live in the shop. But the place went under a month later, so Riley took up residence in his truck.

He moved in with a friend a few weeks later and after eight months playing the clubs got his first big break, performing with Mark Chesnutt on the ABC television show ''The View."

For the next two years, he performed with Chestnutt and during his down time hooked up with Williams lll and Jay DeMarcus.

''We had an instant connection as musicians and friends," said Riley of DeMarcus. ''He started putting Rascal Flatts together with his cousin Joe Don Rooney and Gary LeVox, and when they landed a record deal they asked me to join the band in 2000."

After playing small clubs, fairs, and music festivals, the band toured for a year with Holliston native Jo Dee Messina. Later, it opened for Toby Keith, Brooks and Dunn, and Kenny Chesney.

''We're usually just gone performing for the weekends," said Riley, who is married and lives in Nashville.

Rascal Flatts will return on Feb. 11 to the UMass.-Amherst Mullins Center in Amherst. For tickets, call 860-525-4500 or visit www.ticketmaster.com.

AROUND THE TOWNS: Natick resident and Berklee faculty member Mark Walker has been nominated for a Grammy award in the category of Best Latin Jazz Album for ''Here And Now." . . . Saul and Naomi Cohen have created the Cohen Foundation to help Europeans earning their doctorates in solo performance at Boston University. The foundation supports a concert series; the next show is Feb. 12 at Temple Emanuel in Newton. For information, call Arlyn Baker Schneider at 617-965-2468 or visit www.templeemanuel.com. . . . The Spectrum Singers, whose choral music spans pre-Renaissance through the 20th century, perform Feb. 11 at the Emmanuel Church in Boston. Its members include Marilyn Marlette of Hopkinton; Natick residents Karen Coffman and Anna Andrews; Tom Best of Newton; Steven Solomon of Sherborn; Watertown residents Leslie Horst and Jane Farber; Lawrence Krenis of Wellesley; and Christine Bishop of Weston. Call 617-492-8902 or visit www.spectrumsingers.org.

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