Bay Area residents send medical gear to Ethiopia
Two Bay Area residents, former model Emebet Bellingham and Joseph Zeleke, an ex-fruit broker, have teamed up to help make health changes in their native Ethiopia, which is plagued by malaria and AIDS pandemics.
Since 2003, World Family has sent more than 34 shipping containers filled with hospital equipment and furniture worth $5.4 million to Ethiopia, helped open two dental schools and launched a community center project for orphans.
"It makes a huge difference for those communities," said Zeleke, 39, who moved to the United States eight years ago. "Even the simplest machine can make their lives so much easier."
World Family collaborates with the Ministry of Health of Ethiopia and has received about $260,000 from the Clinton Foundation. Edward Wood, who oversees projects in Africa for the foundation, estimates more than 2,000 medical centers and hospitals in Ethiopia still need medical equipment.
"Most hospitals there are horribly underequipped ... and in the morning, 200 people are lined up waiting to see a doctor - many of them walked for days to get to the hospital," Wood said. "While World Family fills a very good niche, it's not the total answer to Ethiopia's equipment problems."
Last year, the nonprofit collected cribs, walkers and blood labs outdated by U.S. standards, and gave them a second life in dozens of Ethiopian clinics that provide education, prevention and HIV anti-viral treatment drugs.
The arrangement also benefits the U.S. health care providers, which are often required by the insurance companies and state legislation to update their equipment, said Bridget Pearce, director of Facility Management at Novato Community Hospital.
"That's the best kind of recycling we can do," Pearce said. "Out technology is always improving, and it's nice that we have been able to donate equipment we no longer use."
The Novato hospital recently donated a blood analyzer that measures hemoglobin levels; it will be shipped to St. Paul Hospital in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, to help evaluate HIV patients.
According to UNICEF, about 344,000 children under age 5 died in Ethiopia of preventable causes such as malaria in 2007. The U.S. Agency for International Development estimates that 1 of every 22 people there has HIV.
World Family also worked with the National Dental Association to open two dental schools based on U.S. standards to combat poor dental care, one of the most common ways of contracting HIV, Zeleke said.
World Family got its start in 2003, when Zeleke pledged to help Ethiopian residents get better medical care, after his sister died of breast cancer and AIDS there.
His collaboration with Bellingham began in 2006 when one of Zeleke's Ethiopian partners, Yemegnushal Haile, died in a car accident in Addis Ababa. At the hospital, Zeleke met Haile's daughter, Bellingham.
Bellingham left Ethiopia as a teenager in 1984. She graduated from the Fashion Institute of Design in San Francisco and worked as a model and fashion designer.
Learning about Zeleke's work in Ethiopia gave her new purpose, she said.
"It took my mom's death for us to meet," she said. "Helping is very fulfilling, and when you can see how many people benefit, it's very gratifying."
Next month, Zeleke and Bellingham plan groundbreaking for a community center in Gara Dima, a rural village in the East Showa Region of Ethiopia, where people live in primitive huts without electricity and running water.
The center is a part of a pilot program aimed to provide basic skills training to help the local community raise its children. The structure, for example, will be constructed from reinforced bags filled with dirt, which would teach villagers to use materials found in the area, said designers with Field Paoli, a San Francisco firm that has pledged 1 percent of its billable hours pro bono to the World Family. The center will offer health care services as well as classes in farming, water filtration and nutrition.
"When nonprofits go to Africa, they (often) do a quick relief, give money, and there is no sustainability," Bellingham said. "I thought it has to be something that is self-sufficient because we want the community to solve their own problems."
Jaiya benYuhmin, a project manager with Field Paoli, agreed.
"I think it's a very beautiful approach," benYuhmin said. "Not treating them like people we need to help, but instead giving them some tools to move forward."
The estimated price tag of the center is more than $100,000. Last year, Bellingham raised about $88,000 through charitable events in the Bay Area, but she hopes to raise more for an ambitious plan to power the center with solar energy.
"It's a very tough business because you are constantly selling your cause," Bellingham said. "It takes a lot of energy, and there are lots of nonprofits out there."
Bellingham, who still freelances as a fashion designer and wardrobe consultant, works out of her office in San Anselmo. Zeleke works for the nonprofit full time out at his home in Milpitas. They're looking for volunteers and more office and warehouse space.
Thursday morning, Bellingham and Zeleke walked along the piles of dusty hospital beds, wheelchairs of all shapes and sizes and old surgery suction machines wrapped in plastic, examining the medical equipment scattered in a warehouse on the outskirts of Fremont.
"This one is broken," said Bellingham, pointing at a crib with a missing leg. "Out of five cribs we got, only one is broken, so it's still a pretty good deal."
Sam Paules of the Third Party Logistics, who donates that warehouse space, recalled visiting several hospitals in Ethiopia last year, which changed his way of thinking about charitable causes in Africa.
"You go there thinking you are going to approach it as a business person, but it sucks you right in, it's very emotional," Paules said. "We do it because we are all human, and there is no instrumental or pragmatic reason to it."
Online resource For more information about World Family: www.theworldfamily.org
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