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Cheryl-Anne Birse, left foreground, works with mothers from the Mahatsara Parents’ Association to build a grass roof for the cookhouse.

The Donors: Cheryl-Anne and Andrew Birse

The Gift: Raising $49,000 and climbing

The Cause: The Mahatsara School in Madagascar

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When Cheryl-Anne Birse and her husband, Andrew Birse, graduated from university in 2005, they headed to a country few Canadians visit: Madagascar.

The couple spent a year working in a centre for abandoned children, teaching and helping with a microfinance program. During their stay, they met Bina Andriamanjato, a budding lawyer from a small village called Tsarahonenana, about 350 kilometres from the capital, Antananarivo.

Mr. Andriamanjato had big plans to improve the quality of life in the village, starting with building a school. "He pitched his plan to us and we thought it was fantastic," Ms. Birse recalled from Calgary, where she is completing her law degree.

After they returned to Canada, the Birses began raising money for the school project with help of a group of friends. They pulled in $6,000, enough to build the Mahatsara school; the name means "to improve" in the local language. The school opened in 2007 and about 300 students now attend.

Ms. Birse and her husband, a doctor, raise about $7,000 annually to finance the school's operations, with help from Rose Charities Canada, which supports community-based projects around the world. The school has become more than a place of learning. It also supports sports programs, a library, a community garden, nutrition projects, health sessions and an active parents' council.

Ms. Birse said the project has changed the lives of everyone involved, especially herself, her husband and their fellow volunteers in Calgary.

"We all feel very fortunate to be involved in this," she said. "It certainly dictated all of our choices in terms of what professions we've ended up going into. On that same note, it certainly kept us grounded through all of our future endeavours."

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