Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Saving Lives, One Chair at a Time

(this was first published at NEED on August 26)

The dialysis clinic had just opened in Guayaquil, Ecuador, when Juan Carlos was wheeled in, clinging to life. He was so bloated, nobody could tell if he was a boy or a girl. Juan’s mother, learning of the possibility of saving her son’s life, “sold everything they owned, sold the chickens for bus fare” to get Juan to the clinic for help, said Ginny Mello, Executive Director of Bridge of Life (BOL), a charitable arm of Davita, a leading dialysis provider in the US. Until that day, Juan had felt he didn’t want to go on living, didn’t want to burden his family with expensive dialysis treatment from a private hospital. Within days of receiving the dialysis that saved his life, Juan Carlos said that he now wants to be a doctor.

The non-profit clinic in Ecuador was the first of several BOL would open in subsequent years in developing countries, where kidney disease means certain death for anyone who can’t afford the expensive, ongoing treatment. Mello, who was a full-time Davita employee, and her husband, who is the company’s Chief Operating Officer, founded BOL to share their knowledge and passion, to “take what we know that works here and transplant it to a place where it doesn’t exist” in developing countries, said Mello. Davita donates equipment, expertise and employee hours to get the clinics up and running, which takes about a year.

Our kidneys filter excess water and waste from our blood and make urine. The two leading causes of kidney disease, diabetes and high blood pressure, can damage the blood vessels, causing kidneys to shut down. In developing countries, another risk factor for kidney disease is lack of knowlege, causing poor people to become very sick before seeking care. In addition, lack of understanding of the disease among medical professionals decreases the number of patients who are properly diagnosed and treated in early stages of the disease. Instances of kidney disease are not well-tracked in developing countries, but are believed to be much higher than in the U.S., where millions suffer with the disease, according to The National Kidney Disease Eduction Program.

For Bridge of Life, choosing a partner in an under-served area of the globe is the first hurdle. Since BOL doesn’t operate the clinics, the in-country partner, maybe a small hospital, must be able to financially sustain the dialysis clinic, be geographically accessible, and be able to offer nurse and physician expertise. Once a partner is identified, BOL helps to build the clinic, bringing in nephrologists, nurses and technicians who donate their vacation time to train local staff how to operate and maintain the machines. BOL staff and volunteers return for a clinic review every six months for three years, and clinics should be self-sufficient thereafter.

Water used in dialysis has to be cleaner than U.S. tap water. Another challenge is identifying a location with an abundant water supply needed to run the dialysis machines, with a local supplier of parts for the water filtration system. BOL is overcoming these challenges and more, one clinic at a time, at clinics in Cameroon, India, Ecuador, Guatemala and the Philippines. “We are saving hundreds, not thousands, of lives,” said Mello, who admits there aren’t enough dialysis chairs in the world for all the people who need them. But she remains passionate about her mission to help as many people like Juan Carlos as possible. “Who knows what he will do with his life? He may touch another one hundred or a thousand lives.”

Sowing Seeds of Change

(this was first published at NEED on July 16)

In our fast-paced culture of product-based outcomes, one Minnesota group is cultivating relationships that break down the barriers to food justice for people of color, women and the poor, something you can’t hold in your hand.

The Minnesota Food and Justice Alliance (MFJA) is a loose affiliation of groups whose primary raison d’etre may be to cultivate community, mostly urban, gardens, but who also recognize the gardeners involved are mostly white and middle class. The groups “each have a special interest in training people of color to garden” and get access to fresh, healthy food, said Melvin Giles, a self-described community peacemaker and coordinator for MFJA. Tom Guettler, the group’s volunteer and workshop coodinator, said, “White folks show up first because we are already tapped into the system. But, there’s something more than just saying we want to be diverse.”

For the middle class, a grocery store that stocks locally-grown produce, eggs and meat, can be easily reached by car and might be taken for granted. But in economically-depressed neighborhoods, where many people of color live, the choices of fresh food are slim, driving high rates of fast-food consumption, leading to higher instances of diabetes, heart disease and obesity. The food justice movement is attempting to address these food access issues. Sarah Claassen, Minnesota-based Land Stewardship Project organizer and MFJA member, said, “There are huge racial disparities in our food and agricultural system today. It’s working real well for some people,” referring to factory farms, “and not well at all for [small] farmers, for eaters, for people who want to grow our food here and for people who want to be in control of their food system.” But she believes that solutions have to be community-based. “Where there are the biggist barriers, there is the biggest innovation. A lot of the solutions being proposed aren’t being decided by those people,” such as how to grow a lot of food in the smallest space with very little waste. “I think the solution is different for every community. We need to maintain relationships with rural communities. I don’t see a food system where everything is grown in the city, but we do need to empower people to make those decisions.”

“Land is the biggest barrier” to urban community gardening, so forming relationships between stakeholders is essential, said Giles. For example, CSA (community-supported agriculture) is a program where local farmers provide what they raise to city dwellers who might otherwise buy supermarket goods that have been shipped from thousands of miles away. Giles said one neighborhood’s answer was to make a deal with a grower to allow them to pay for their CSA in installments.

“Education to action is something we’re committed to, not just talking to talk,” said Claassen. In this spirit, MFJA has agreed to sign on to Homegrown Minneapolis, an initiative to build a stronger local food system, with the stipulation that racial equity and accountability be stated goals. Giles, Guettler and Claassen also offer a workshop for community garden groups in which they talk about white privilege, encouraging the groups to create a safe place for conversations about the barriers to food justice in their communities. “Smart, white folks tend to take a world view of things. They externalize as opposed to looking in the garden and in themselves. Our goal is to get people to look inside and say, ‘What’s going on here? Who’s here? Who’s not here? What can I do about it?’”

Tom Guettler MFJA Coordinator 651-307-5691 (no website, but information will be shared on other group’s websites)

Tourism on Their Own Terms

(this was first published at NEED on July 14)

Sam Bailey was surfing his way up the western coast of Peru last year, taking advantage of the warm waters and hospitality. Crossing into Ecuador, he traveled through many interesting beach towns in various stages of development, and arrived in the small town of Canoa, on the north coast.

Bailey noticed that tourism in many of the villages had been taken over by outside industry, where big companies had come in and set up hotels and restaurants without concern for the natural environment or local customs. The fishing village of Canoa, which also catered to surfers, was still unspoiled, with most roads still unpaved, and where electricity goes out every once in a while. It was obvious to Bailey that tourism was coming to Canoa, but he hoped he could help the villagers build their industry on their own terms.

His idea was to start a camp for college-aged students, where they could learn to surf and take on environmental projects. “Surfing is a solitary sport. Surfers don’t see beyond themselves when they return to the beach,” Bailey said. He wanted to change that dynamic when he approached one of the locals, Daniel Velasco, a town leader and fellow surfer who runs a posada (small hotel) in Canoa. According to Bailey, Velasco didn’t trust the idea at first, fearing it was another way to exploit the village. But Bailey convinced him that he was sincere, assuring him the groups would patronize locally-owned hotels and restaurants, spreading money around in the local economy. Also, each group member would donate money to the local grade school. Velasco agreed to introduce Bailey to the community and helped facilitate what became Eco-Surf Volunteers.

The school, La Escuela los Algarrobos (named after a kind of native tree) includes English as a Second Language and environmental education in their curriculum. At the school, the ES volunteers facilitate arts and crafts sessions conducted in English. Moya Foley, the school administrative and financial director, a Canadian who has lived in Ecuador for 30 years, said the financial donation helped complete some construction on two new classrooms, and the volunteers “worked their butts off moving dirt, sanding, painting and generally doing whatever we needed done.”

In addition to helping out at the school, the volunteers lead the village children on beach clean-ups, to “get ahold of their attitudes about clean-up” early in life. The volunteers’ hard work – about four hours a day – is rewarded with two-hour daily surf lessons, given by locals. “I think the most important thing the volunteers talk back to their countries as an experience, is the cultural immersion they have and the contact with the community ,” said Velasco. He was particularly satisfied with the impression the volunteers made on the village children. “To see the volunteers working on the school activities and watching them as they walk to do beach cleanups, and collecting garbage on the street . . . they are used to seeing tourist partying or laying on the beach reading, maybe getting a wrong idea about life, but this way they can understand that life is not about that.”

The programs have been a big hit with the kids. “The first day we had about 20 kids and on the last day we had 90!” said Foley. They are “looking forward to the volunteer’s return. They stop me on the streeet, the older ones, and ask me when they are coming back.”

Bailey is planning several more camps through 2010, but envisions the people of Canoa eventually taking over operation of the camps themselves. “The town is still discovering what is needed. They want progress, but want to do it in a careful way. Their biggest concern is developing the tourist industry while maintaining cultural identity.”

Kids These Days!

(this was first published at NEED on June 23 and June 25)
was founded to dispel the myth that teenagers are apathetic, using “the power of the internet to help young people change the world,” and for 16 years has been empowering them with money and tools to do good work. Each week the organization gives two $500 grants, one for seed projects and one for disaster relief. Each year, they give $10,000 grants to several young finalists whose vision and effort have really made a difference. A grand prize is awarded to one of those finalists to continue their work. This year, on June 4, Maggie Doyne won $100,000 for her Kopila Valley Children's Home in Nepal, which she built using babysitting money. The other 2009 finalists – the rock stars of social change – are Marvelyn Brown, David Burstein, Eric Glustrom, and Darius Weems. Read on to learn the awesome stories of these young people who don’t know the meaning of “apathetic.”

Maggie Doyne – Kopila Valley Children's Home

A vision, a shovel and a stash of babysitting money was all Maggie needed to build a children’s home in Nepal. At the end of her senior year in high school, Maggie says she took what was supposed to be a year off to travel to learn her purpose in the world. One stop was an orphanage in India, where she had been told volunteers were needed. From there she traveled to Nepal, where she met hundreds more street children without the most basic necessities. “I’d seen orphanages that were causing more problems than helping,” Maggie said, where kids are more susceptible to disease than they are on the streets. “They come out with no skills and end up right back on the streets.” She resolved to build a children’s home, and talked to everyone who would listen about how to make that happen. She then identified a piece of land in a valley beside a stream. When she found out the asking price - $5000, exactly the amount she had in the bank – she knew it was meant to be. Orphans who truly have nobody to turn to are taken in at the Kopila Home, where 26 children, ages 3-10, learn sewing, gardening and husbandry, skills they will need in their region of Nepal, where subsistence farming is the norm. Maggie believes the road to peace is through children. “Until we start looking at the lives of children in countries where violence is prevalent, violence will prevail.”

Marvelyn Brown – Marvelous Connections

At 19, Marvelyn was having a good time. She partied and hung out with friends, without a care in the world. She started flirting with a guy from work, and was flattered to be considered his lovely, sexy “accessory.” That is, until he infected her with HIV. In high school, when HIV had been discussed, Marvelyn had shrugged off the information, thinking HIV was an infection reserved for drug users and prostitutes. So when an unrelated hospital visit prompted tests that came up positive for HIV, she was shocked. Marvelyn met others who were infected and realized she “wasn’t the only one who had missed the information” about HIV. Ignorance was affecting more than just her. As word of her diagnosis spread quickly from friends out into the community, she understood the impact her story could have on other young people. “I realized the power of my voice.” These days, as the head of her own consulting agency, Marvelous Connections, Marvelyn goes around the country into “high schools, colleges, universities, churches, sweet 16 parties, anywhere I can get the word out” because, she says, young people need an example. “They need to see someone who has it, how easily they can get it, that it’s not the image that you think.” The Marvelous Connections 2009 tour is aimed at reducing the stigma of HIV and influencing 5,000 students to get informed and tested.

David Burstein – “18 in ‘08”
David wasn’t old enough to vote when he realized his generation was underrepresented at the polls. He was 16 during the 2004 elections, and the story that was repeating over and over on TV was that today’s youth don’t get involved in politics. He decided then and there to do something to spur his peers – “a generation that has so much at stake, ranging from education to college tuition, from health care to global climate change” – to get involved in the 2008 presidential election. “Whatever way they get involved, we don’t take sides. That they get involved is what’s important to us.” David launched a non-partisan campaign aimed at launching activism and encouraging voter registration, featuring young people and politicians alike. The first tool, a documentary targeting 17 to 24-yr-olds, was sold across the country. The Los Angeles and New York City school districts bought the film to show in civics classes. Sales of the film funded the making of public service announcements featuring celebrities and policy forums that were held around the country. The campaign encouraged 25,000 new voters, said Burstein. But he didn’t stop there. Since the election, “18 in ’08” continues to spur political participation through policy forums that spark discussion and ideas about how to solve the problems that will be facing his generation for years to come. “Young people are increasingly drifting away from party, moving toward ideas, beliefs. As a political observer, I think that’s a good thing.”

Eric Glustrom – Educate!

Eric was told he was too young to go Africa alone. He’d only ever been to Canada. His parents had misgivings about sending him to Uganda to execute his idea, to make a video about life in the Kyangwali Refugee Settlement. It was the summer after his junior year of high school, but Eric, 17, would not be deterred and his parents finally consented. The first person he met when he stepped off the bus would become his best friend and the catalyst for an initiative to educate people to become leaders for social change in their country. Benson Olivier had lost his family and was now living in the refugee camp and dealing with the challenges all refugees face: malnutrition, poverty, malaria, threat of violence, and hopelessness. Benson said he needed an education so he could help solve these pressing problems, and Eric made a commitment to help, paying for Benson’s education. Since 2002, Educate! has evolved into a network of U.S. high school and college groups that mentor Ugandan students, ages 16 to19, through the two-year leadership curriculum. The first students to graduate have taken their leadership skills and “started an orphanage, sent 70 kids to school, and raised over $10,000 from farming,” to fund it all themselves, Eric said. They have “directly impacted 9,000 people, about half the people” in the settlement. But, he says, the biggest thing Educate! has done for the people of Kyangwali was to believe in them, to give them confidence to create change.

Darius Weems – “Darius Goes West”

In the summer of ’05, Darius and his buddies took a road trip. Twelve guys, most still in high school, jumped in the van and headed west, from their home in Georgia to California, in the hopes of getting MTV to pimp Darius’ ride. Video camera in hand, it was a typical adolescent lark, except for one thing: Darius suffers with Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy, and Darius’ ride is a wheelchair. DMD is a genetic disease that causes the deterioration of the voluntary muscles, eventually leading to heart failure, usually before the age of 30. Darius hoped that an appearance on a national TV show would bring much-needed attention to the disease that is 100% fatal. He didn’t get on MTV that time, but they have since offered to produce a news special about Darius and DMD. Darius’s friend, Logan Smalley, the videographer for the cross-country trip, spent a year editing what became “Darius Goes West,” a documentary that has won 28 film festivals awards worldwide. When they began to get requests for copies of the movie from around the country, they decided to sell the DVD, donating proceeds for DMD research, which so far amounts to $1.6 million. “It’s not always about what you do for yourself,” Darius said. “Putting a smile on the faces of parents with kids with this disease, giving them a little hope, makes me want to keep on fighting. It won’t save me, but these kids are the ones who will discover a cure in the future.”

Vigilante for Social Justice

(this was first published at NEED on June 6, 2009)

Eric Klein was mad as hell. On the December day in 2004 when the tsunami hit Southeast Asia, Klein was hit by a drunk driver. Klein didn’t realize it at the time, but the two events would change his life. Along with the rest of the world, Klein watched as billions of dollars poured into relief organization coffers for the devastated people of Sri Lanka. Six weeks later, little of the money seemed to be getting to the people on the ground, the villagers whose lives had been swept away by the storm. “The biggest relief effort in history, over $7 billion, and we had no idea how the money is being spent.” Klein says he couldn’t find Sri Lanka on the map, but was determined to help out with some of the settlement money he got from the car accident. He and two of his buddies would go there to help however they could. He asked himself, “How hard can it be?” What he found were untouched stacks of supplies in a warehouse across the street from needy villagers. What was intended to be a 5-day trip turned into a 4-month relief effort. He worked with several villages on things they needed: he helped build houses and public bathrooms; he bought simple necessities for the hospitals, shoes and toiletries for the villagers. He helped them organize to rebuild their communities.

From that experience CAN-DO, or Compassion into Action Network-Direct Outcome, was born. CAN-DO has helped communities by supplying provisions in the wake of the hurricanes that have slashed the gulf coast, flooding in Iowa and Rwanda, and power cut-offs in South Dakota, on the Crow Creek Reservation. On the reservation, Klein says he saw the worst poverty, where people earn less than $4000 a year, a place where the average life expectancy is 44 years. The utility company in the region had begun to shut off the power of residents during days of extreme cold – even against the company’s own cold-weather policy – because residents were overdue on their power bill. “I’m not some white guy going in saying, ‘here, take this, do this.’ They say what they want.” Lisa Lengkeek, whose brother worked with Klein to expose the power cut offs, said Klein came to them through an “act of the universe.” He wasn’t able to get the company to give the residents any breaks, but he is helping them to realize a dream: CAN-DO and a tribal organization called Tree of Life are partnering to build a women’s crisis center that will also house a commissary that will provide essentials like food, diapers and other dry goods. They still need $7000 to complete the project.

Klein said in the beginning he used to fly under the radar, just go out and help wherever he could without looking for publicity. After competing on Oprah’s Big Give, he realized the value of self-promotion, that to get the attention of funders, you need to get noticed. “People think we’re this big organization, but we’re not,” Klein says of CAN-DO, which is made up of a few of his friends and his mother and father. When they hear about a community in need, they pool resources and jump in to help. “We don’t have a religious or political agenda. We don’t cut checks for salaries. We have a low overhead. All the [donated] money goes into the communities we serve. We get the community involved,” says Klein. Along with spending his own money, he has received grants or supplies from Oprah Winfrey, North Face, the Airline Ambassadors and other groups. To measure accountability for people’s donations, CAN-DO has created the Virtual Volunteer, “the first online, interactive real-time video web site which allows millions world wide to Watch LIVE and interact via chat as you personally witness your contributions make it into the hands of those in need.”

Klein can be reached at 646-228-7049