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SPOTLIGHT: Long Grove sisters share mission

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LONG GROVE, Ill. — Recognizing his two strong-willed and adventurous daughters weren't eager to take a traditional — or even paved — path through life, Dan de Grazia offered some advice.

"I said, 'It's time for you to go own your own stories,'" de Grazia recalls. "'Go learn what I already know about you.'"

Mission accomplished.

Just 21 and 18 years old, respectively, Aliya and Dana de Grazia have since collected enough stories to last most lifetimes, and they are more confident than ever in their efforts to protect both human and animal rights.

Raised in Long Grove, the Stevenson High School graduates now live on the outskirts of Nairobi as students at the United States International University in Kenya.

The roommates took very different journeys getting there, however. Aliya arrived via a Catholic mission with no running water. Dana came by way of a Zambian lion sanctuary.

Whereas Dana couldn't wait to leave high school and graduated a year early, older sister Aliya was a motivated AP kid. She earned a spot in Purdue University's honors program with plans to study anthropology. But while her friends acted giddy over dorm assignments and campus tours, Aliya felt nothing.

"I decided that I wanted to spend a year out in the world, giving back and seeing what I could do," she said.

Going the unconventional route was nothing new to Aliya, whose friends joked she'd be the alumna most likely to get shot in a Marxist revolution.

She earned that reputation through activities like organizing Stevenson's first gay dance as co-president of the Gay Straight Alliance, leading a school walkout over a state law requiring a moment of silence in public schools, and working as an election judge in 2008 despite being too young to vote.

With her parents' blessing, she graduated in spring 2009, got a job and applied to AmeriCorps. But the national service program was inundated that year with applications, and Aliya never heard back.

Determined not to waste the year, she Googled "grass-roots volunteering overseas" and came across an opportunity at a Catholic mission in the Kenyan village of Mulot, home to about 1,000 people. With the promise she'd go to college eventually, Aliya signed up for a six-month commitment to teach English at the mission school.

"It's funny," Aliya said. "I sometimes think, 'How did a white Jewish girl from Long Grove end up on a Catholic mission in Africa?'"

That was more than two years ago.

Aliya didn't adjust well to the culture shock at first. Malaria medication gave her insomnia. Showering meant heating a bucket of water over a charcoal fire and dumping it on her head. And the latrines took some getting used to.

A bout with typhoid didn't help, either. Despite getting vaccinated, Aliya contracted the bacterial disease, which caused a high fever and intense stomach cramps. She was so sick that many days are a blur.

But she was drawn to the children and struck by their plight.

There was Faith, a girl about to drop out of the school because she couldn't afford a school uniform, and Peter, a boy who approached her in rags saying he wanted to go to school.

And then there was the water, or lack thereof.

The mission's system was always breaking down and the spring drying up. But that was nothing compared to the situation at the nearby public school, where kids often missed hours of class to fetch water from stagnant puddles outside the village or the disease-ridden, muddy Amala River.

The Rev. Patrick Ngai, leader of the mission, said there was water underground, but they couldn't get to it.

"I thought, 'How hard could that be?'" Aliya said. "Those were my famous last words."

Aliya soon founded Small Planet Big Plans, a charity whose mission is to pay for the schooling of Mulot's neediest children and provide a reliable source of clean drinking water.

Between fundraising efforts and the sacrifice of her family, the nonprofit built a well and pump, giving villagers 24/7 access. Small Planet Big Plans even works not to destroy local economies, paying the women who previously earned money retrieving water from the river.

When the devastating East African drought hit last year, it prompted a new goal to build two massive tanks to store water. The charity eventually hopes to install an entire plumbing system so that kids know the luxury of taking a hot shower or even using a toilet.

Those projects will cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Aliya remains committed, but progress has slowed since she moved a few hours away for school in Nairobi.

"I won't give up," Aliya said. "I'll always be connected to Mulot and those kids."

While chance played a role in Aliya's connection to Africa, younger sister Dana long figured she'd end up there. Her dream to work as a conservationist began as a Girl Scout with a first-grade field trip to a Wisconsin farm. That's where she saw a lion club, panting in a small cage without food or water.

"Something was wrong," Dana said. "I knelt down and we stared at each other. I put my hand up and it put its paw up. I got hooked."

Dana set out to learn everything she could about lions and the illegal animal trade, and graduated a year early to spend several weeks at ALERT, or the African Lion & Environmental Research Trust.

She fed, pet, walked and played with lion cubs, most about 12 to 13 months old. The key, Dana said, is to establish dominance.

"I can say that I have hit a lion in the face and survived," Dana said.

ALERT is working to save the African lion population. It buys lion cubs in captivity, raises them to 18 months then releases them to a pride in an enclosure with no predators. The lions later transition to a larger enclosure that does have predators. Those lions mate, and cubs that have never interacted with humans are released into the wild.

Back home, Dana sometimes gets up to the Wisconsin Big Cat Rescue near the Wisconsin Dells.

"There's plenty of stuff we can do here on the homefront to help," Dana said.

Lauren de Grazia gets emotional about her daughters' accomplishments, fears for their safety and beams with pride when she talks about them. She's cherishing their time together at home this summer but understands their desire to return to Nairobi.

"I don't know how I got such exceptional kids," she said.

After finishing her undergrad studies next year, Aliya likely will go to graduate school to study international relations with a focus on human security. She can see eventually going to law school for international humanitarian law.

"I'd love to work in The Hague and punish the people in charge who abuse their power and make things the way they are," Aliya said.

Dana has a few more years before getting her degree in conservation policy. She might pursue a master's degree, intern at ALERT or bring her experience back to the states to work on domestic policies.

The sisters like to dream of the possibility that one day, one of the kids benefiting from Aliya's efforts will cure cancer using one of the plants Dana helps save.

"Life matters," Aliya said. "It doesn't matter whether you're one of my kids or one of Dana's."

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Information from: Daily Herald, http://www.dailyherald.com