KEYS RESIDENT CHANGED HER LIFE BY FALLING IN LOVE WITH ZAMBIA

After the financial crisis of 2008, Stacy James found herself at a crossroads. She had lost her music agent job while she was living in Las Vegas, so she left her resume with the elementary school up the street for a shot at employment. Luckily she got the job. But in 2011, she needed to press “restart” on her life. And she kept thinking, “elephants.”

“​​I wasn’t expecting to start anything,” said James, a part-time Upper Keys resident. “But my heart has always been with animals, particularly elephants. I feel like the elephants are what called me over to Africa. It stemmed from my mother sending me a video of elephants walking through a lodge. So I went on Google and searched, and it popped up: Mfuwe Lodge in Zambia.”

James was taken by the footage of elephants making a shortcut through the lodge’s lobby in order to access some fallen fruits from a wild mango tree. She felt compelled to organize a safari to Zambia.

“I invited my cousin and another person, and they invited another person, and it ended up being six of us on the safari,” she recalled. “We completely fell in love with the experience.”

Some women were moved by the local children, some by the land and the animals, but all fell in love with Zambia. And they wanted to give back.

“We were so inspired by how incredibly generous and genuine the people of Zambia were,” said James. “Coming from the U.S., it sometimes takes a few layers to peel away before you see our identity. But the people of Zambia were extremely transparent and generous. It was an eight-night trip, and we walked away not in a sense of, ‘We want to help you.’ It was more like, ‘You have things that are challenging for us, and we have things that are challenging for you.’”

So on the flight back home from Johannesburg to New York, the six women — James, Sarah Early, Caroline Jones, Donielle Alexander, Shera Pillsbury, Joanne Hardy — racked their brains for what they could do to give back to the place that brought them so much joy. Back in the United States, conversations ensued and partnerships were created with Zambian organizations in conservation, education and community development.

All six women are still involved today and their effort is now a nonprofit called Dazzle Africa. The organization provides guide-led philanthropic safaris to national parks, and all profits from safari donations fund Dazzle Africa’s projects. The projects include building wells for villages with no access to clean water; sending Zambian children to college to stop the cycle of poverty; and conservation efforts to protect the land and the animals. James said participants in the safaris naturally take an interest in the projects that the organization is sponsoring, so educational visits to see them are arranged. 

Pre-pandemic, Dazzle Africa was hosting three safaris a year. COVID brought the safaris to a standstill. So James has been splitting her time between her Upper Keys home (she and her husband Chip Croop were married in Islamorada in 2015) and Kansas to help her parents. All the while, she does administrative work and fundraising for Dazzle Africa. The next safari will be in 2022.

Keys locals have connected with James’ project of the heart and have done some fundraising for her themselves. Lauren Ferrante of Island Flow Yoga met James at a yoga class, and the duo instantly clicked. At the time, Lauren’s son Jesse was studying water shortages in school and offered to help raise money for a well through selling rubber bracelets and a GoFundMe page.

And Islamorada artist Maxine Trainer donated a brilliantly colored painting of an elephant to be auctioned at a gala. The money went directly to anti-poaching through the organization Conservation South Luangwa.

“What totally interested me straight away about Stacy is she’s really got her smarts on because she’s not only helping the animals, she’s helping the people,” said Trainer. “And in turn it all works together.”

“There’s an African proverb: sticks in a bundle don’t break,” said James. “If people could only take a step back and realize how much extra they have and be willing to share that with other people to make their lives better. Let’s just be generous. We have plenty to share. And be with gratitude in your life.”

More information on Dazzle Africa is at dazzleafrica.org.

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Charlotte Twine fled her New York City corporate publishing life and happily moved to the Keys six years ago. She has written for Travel + Leisure, Allure, and Offshore magazines; Elle.com; and the Florida Keys Free Press. She loves her two elderly Pomeranians, writing stories that uplift and inspire, making children laugh, the color pink, tattoos, Johnny Cash, and her husband. Though not necessarily in that order.