It began innocently enough: A relaxing South Africa safari vacation. A tour to see elephants, lions and other wildlife in their natural habitat. An impromptu request to the lodge manager to visit the community beyond the grounds of the resort-style safari lodges.

What followed for UC staff member Suzanne Cross was an eye-opening glimpse into life in rural Mnqobokazi in Zululand and the challenges facing Nkomo Primary School as it aims to deliver a quality education to hundreds of children with scarce resources. Here, families struggle daily with the harsh realities of poverty, crime and AIDS. The government pays educators to teach the young, but it doesn't provide buildings or classrooms. Those are left to the residents to build from the ground up.

"They had 600 to 700 children and four classrooms made of concrete that the community had built," Cross said, recounting that first, unplanned visit. "No electricity, no running water. But the children come every day. For many of them, it is their way to get a free meal once a day - rice and beans cooked over an open fire."

That brief sojourn to Nkomo Primary School turned into an impassioned 11-year crusade to improve the quality of life for its students and help clear hurdles to a quality education.

Cross has become one of Nkomo's most ardent supporters, returning to this small community in the northeast corner of South Africa every two years to visit the children and forge a lasting connection with the school principal. She has donated thousands of dollars to add a roof to a classroom, cover tuition, food and clothing for some of the poorest students, buy high school-bound teens their uniforms; and create university scholarships.

"They don't have many of the things that so many of us take for granted," said Cross, who not surprisingly is a charitable asset administrator at the UC systemwide headquarters in Oakland by day. "Giving them the resources they need can help these children have a better future."

Often these kinds of philanthropic endeavors can be solo affairs, but Cross has made it her mission to appeal to others and build support for Nkomo. Inspired by UC Santa Barbara engineer John Bowers' Unite to Light campaign to deliver solar lights that illuminate the dark for the world's 1.5 billion people without electricity, Cross spearheaded her own drive at UC's systemwide headquarters to bring light to Nkomo children.

"They don't have electricity there, so the children use candles at night to do their homework," Cross said. "Or they walk long distances to the high school where some of the buildings have electricity, but they run the risk of being assaulted or raped on the walk home."

Donations from Cross's colleagues poured in. In August, she shipped 700 solar lights to Nkomo.

"I loved this campaign because of its UC connection: the product was created by a UC researcher, and it's the loving cause of a UC employee (Cross) who has championed it to other UC employees," said Lena Zentall, a project manager at UC Office of the President who donated $100 to buy 10 lights for the children."UC is about educating, enlightening, and engaging. And that's exactly what this campaign does - literally brings light to students in Africa so they can study after dark."

With more than 14,200 children in the community, Nkomo Principal Nomusa Zikhali had to make tough decisions on who would receive the coveted solar lights. In the end, she gave first priority to students studying for critical exams and children in Mnqobokazi's poorest areas.

"I don't have enough words of expressing my gratitude to you, your friends, your relatives, your colleagues and the students from the University of California for what they did for my community," Zikhali wrote to Cross. "Children were very happy to receive the solar lights and they are motivated in such a way that they promised me to get 95 percent pass rate in mathematics."

More solar lights are on the way. Argonne Elementary School in San Francisco, where Cross is a weekly classroom volunteer, is holding its own drive. The goal: send an additional 200 to 300 lights to Nkomo in January.

Since 2006, Argonne also raised more than $9,000 in a read-a-thon to buy educational supplies for Nkomo. And many of its students are pen pals with Nkomo children.

Cross's commitment to bring light to Nkomo has earned her an invitation to serve on the Unite to Light board of directors, an offer she was delighted to accept.

Nkomo has come a long way from the small four-classroom school it was in 2002 when Cross first visited, thanks to Cross and its other supporters. The 900 students now learn in 15 classrooms, although conditions remain crowded. A community center provides an important gathering space.

Still, there are countless challenges. Clean, running water remains elusive. Educational supplies are limited, requiring students to share textbooks and other materials. And many of the children's families continue to struggle with poverty. Family members, and sometimes even the children, die from HIV or AIDS.

Cross and her partner John Simpson are working on a feature documentary chronicling Nkomo's struggles and triumphs.

The pair have completed filming for the documentary, aptly named "Under Four Trees" because the school started out with outdoor classes held under four trees, and hope to have a first rough cut at the end of this year.

Katherine Tam is a communications coordinator in Internal Communications at UC's Office of the President.