Go to the Helen Keller International website and you will see two startling statistics: 80 percent of world blindness is preventable and poor nutrition is implicated in the death of over 5 million children every year. Kathy Spahn, HKI’s President and Chief Executive Officer, has seen up close the human suffering behind those numbers. This spring she traveled to Sierra Leone and Senegal in Africa to work with community volunteers who are on the front line in this critical health care battle. “We provide the structure and training of the trainers,” she explained. “There are 30,000 community volunteers doing this work. They are not paid. All they get is a T-shirt.”
Enlisting volunteers is critical to the success of HKI’s programs. “We are a technical assistance agency,” said Spahn. “We’re looking for sustainability, to strengthen the capacity of local governments and health organizations.” On the most recent trip, Spahn and HKI officials paid surprise visits on the health clinics. She was amazed at the dedication of the volunteers. When HKI sponsored a thank-you event for the volunteers in one town, 179 out of 184 showed up, even though some lived a three-hour walk away. (The photo above shows Spahn, on right, handing out a certificate to village health volunteers, in Bo, Sierra Leone).
In Africa’s developing countries, river blindness, or onchocerciasis, is transmitted to humans through the bite of a black fly. Ivermectin, manufactured by Merck, is used to treat the disease. “We have a lot of work to do to prevent river blindness,” said Spahn. Merck donates the medication, Spahn said, “no holds barred,” meaning as long as the drug is needed.
CDTI, Community Directed Treatment with Ivermectin, mobilizes the volunteers and sends them out into the community to deliver the medication. “What’s so wonderful is that the community selects its own volunteers,” said Spahn. “It’s people to people.” In Sierra Leone, involvement is on all levels, from local chieftains, districts, towns, and villages.
These volunteers often must travel through difficult terrain to distribute the medication. In the spring, Spahn and other HKI officials had a taste of what that travel sometimes involves when they were forced to navigate an unexpected body of water. Natives helped cobble together a big raft that was placed on oil drums to float. “We drove our land rover onto the raft,” Spahn said. “They pulled us across a puddle that had suddenly become a river.” A journey that should have taken two hours ended up taking six.
The future excites Spahn because now that the community volunteers are in place, they can take on other health-related jobs. “When you have that reach you can layer on other programs,” she said. “We can go to the malaria people and say, `We’re already in the community. Do you want to provide treated mosquito nets?’” she said. “These volunteers can handle four or five different things.”
Already the volunteers distribute Vitamin A for pregnant women and children. They can also administer drugs for deworming. “I thought when I saw pictures of children with bloated stomachs that their stomachs were bloated because they were hungry,” she said. “That’s not it. They have bellies full of worms, millions of worms, long, disgusting worms.”
With the medication, administered over three days, a child may excrete all the worms. “As long as they have worms, any food they eat is being eaten by the parasites,” she said. “You’ve got to start by getting rid of the worms.” Medication for this cause is donated by Johnson & Johnson. (The photo at left shows Spahn with village children).
Spahn’s previous positions with non-profits—ORBIS and God’s Love We Deliver—have prepared her well for her work at HKI. ORBIS is a global nonprofit organization dedicated to the prevention and treatment of blindness in the developing world, while God’s Love We Deliver, a nonprofit AIDS service organization is all about food and nutrition. Her duties at HKI are a convergence of these two issues that she feels so passionately about.
As a child, Spahn wanted to become a teacher, “common for girls growing up in the fifties,” she said. She became a dancer and worked for the city’s first commission for cultural affairs. But in the late 1970s and early 1980s, she saw many of the artists she knew fall victim to AIDS. “It just started to feel frivolous to me,” she said, “bringing in dance companies around the world to the U.S., when the community here was being decimated.” She did an about face and sought work in public health. “It took a while,” she said. “When you have an arts resume, it’s not easy to work in health care.”
In the near future, Spahn will attend a conference in Washington D.C., an event in Europe, and a meeting in Melbourne. She will accompany several HKI board members on a trip to Nepal. She spends about one-quarter of her time traveling. Her husband, Dick Sandhaus, is an entrepreneur who works from home. “His support makes it possible for me to work very hard,” she said.
Spahn knows she made the right career switch because the enthusiasm she feels for HKI’s mission never wanes. When she worked in the arts, she was always nervous about making a speech. “I often wore pants so that people wouldn’t see my knees shaking,” she said. Now, however, she has a “fire in the belly” for what she does. And when called upon to speak: “I say, `Give me that microphone,’” she said, with a laugh.
For more information on Helen Keller International, go to www.hki.org
Woman Around Town’s Six Questions
Favorite Place to Eat: Payard (which sadly just closed this week!)
Favorite Place to Shop: Peipers and Kojen
Favorite New York Sight: Looking across the Bow Bridge toward the
Ramble in Central Park in late spring
Favorite New York Moment: Early morning off leash time for dogs in
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What You Hate About New York: Crowded rush hour subways