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Fund-raiser At Southwick Zoo Will Help Children In Tanzania

Jay Rowe gets lots of love from the children of COKO in Tanzania.

Orphanage Founded By Bellingham’s

 Jay Rowe 


Bulletin Staff Writer

Bellingham’s Jay Rowe and the Southwick Zoo in Mendon have formed a magnificent partnership to help 30 children in an orphanage in Tanzania. 

A fund-raising event, scheduled for Sept. 8 from 5-9 pm at the zoo, will ensure that money raised not only will benefit the children, but it also will help Rowe emphasize the orphanage’s mission statement that reads: “to provide children (ages 5-12) access to school, medical care and church services in a clean, safe and loving environment.’’

The orphanage is located in Moshi, a small city in the East African country that borders Kenya, and its name is COKO (Children of Kilimanjaro Orphanage). 

COKO was founded by Rowe and it began operating on March 15, 2020, just days before Covid-19 arrived. At the start of 2022, the zoo became the orphanage’s primary sponsor.

“What could be better than a zoo that believes in animal conservation and teams up with an orphanage in East Africa to provide children an opportunity to have a normal life,’’ said Rowe, who served in the Army and the Marine Corps.

 Tickets for the fund-raiser are $50 and include two hours of touring the zoo from 5 to 7 pm, a skyfari ride (chairlift view of the zoo), music provided by Pieces of Eight, and a buffet that includes ribs, chicken, pulled pork, cheeseburgers, potato salad, cornbread and corn on the cob. Raffles will be held for gift baskets and other items. 

Tickets (in the form of a bracelet) can be obtained by going to COKO’s website ( or at Venmo by typing Children of Kilimanjaro Orphanage. They can also be purchased from Rowe, Amanda Campano or Roger Dooley, all members of COKO’s Board of Directors.

The 60-year-old Rowe is a native of Bellingham who graduated from Bellingham High in 1982. An avid outdoorsman, he always wanted to reach mountain tops.  

A desire to climb Mount Kilimanjaro brought Rowe to Africa, and it was his generous nature to help people that led him to volunteer at orphanages in Kenya and Tanzania. “I quickly discovered there are good orphanages and bad ones,’’ he said. “And, it was unfortunate to see that money raised by bad ones wasn’t benefitting children.’’

As a youth, his late parents (Dina and Chuck) always provided Rowe with the simple things in life. “I enjoyed a safe environment and I was loved,’’ he said. 

In spite of dealing with cancer (seven surgeries that led to removal of his esophagus), he still felt the need to undertake the Herculean task of starting an orphanage. Now, after three-plus years, COKO is in a good place and its future is bright. 

Since its inception, COKO has changed a bit but it’s all good.

“We’ve expanded from 25 children to 30,’’ Rowe said. “Our fulltime staff has increased from seven to nine and includes a head matron, a head teacher, a security officer, assistant teachers, a cook and a cleaning employee. In March of 2025, we’ll be leaving the compound’s three buildings that occupy 10,000 square feet. We’ve bought 1.6 acres of flat land on Mount Kilimanjaro and that property will be the new COKO. It’s beautiful, gorgeous land that’s loaded with fruit trees.’’

Rowe knows the value of speaking more than one language. He speaks Swahili well enough to converse with the children, who learn to speak English at the start of third grade.

“They start learning English at school but when they return to COKO, they continue to work on English with two teachers, and they also do their homework,’’ Rowe said. “The children at COKO are in the top 10 percent of their class.’’

Most of the children have no parents and some previously lived with grandparents who no longer could take care of them. They all come from villages surrounding Moshi and they’re all chosen based on need by Rowe and co-founder Babu Msuya.  

Rowe, who ran a masonry business before retiring, usually travels to Tanzania five or six times a year. But thanks to today’s technology, he’s able to talk on a daily basis with Msuya, a former school teacher. “We discuss the day-to-day operations, COKO business, and what’s needed,’’ Rowe noted. “I also inquire about the kids’ health, safety and their schooling.’’ 

Without donations there would be no COKO. The orphanage has donors from Bellingham, from all over the United States and from other countries. “A small amount can still go a long way in Tanzania,’’ Rowe said. “A large percentage of donations comes from Bellingham because, as a co-founder of the orphanage, friends, residents and businesses know me. Anyone wishing to donate can go to’’ 

Mountain climbing took Rowe to Tanzania but he also was avidly involved with  long-distance backpacking and ice climbing. But, he always wanted to climb Mount Kilimanjaro and he did that in January, 2011. “At that time, that was my highest climb,’’ he said. “It was 19,341 feet. But, my highest effort was in 2013 in Nepal when I climbed 20,305 feet to the top of Island Peak in the Himalayan mountain range.’’ 

Mountain climbing and orphanages are an unusual mix but that combination has benefitted both the children of COKO and Rowe.

“When you see 30 kids who are happy, safe, going to school, playing games, having clean clothes and linen, and knowing they’re loved, it’s an awesome feeling,’’ Rowe said. “These children never had anything. They just want to smile, be hugged and be happy. They’re getting the things I had growing up. Every kid deserves that. They’ve given me more than I’ve given them.’’ 

Rowe says that starting an orphanage was the greatest thing he’s done in his life. “The kids are loved by a devoted staff and they’re all friends. It’s one big family,’’ he emphasized.

The fund-raiser at Southwick Zoo will be a great way to assist in keeping COKO functioning and helping children.

Rowe doesn’t crave publicity for his efforts but he’s pleased when COKO gets noticed. His giving nature is a plus and it has no limits and no boundaries. 

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