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A Shining Light

A remote East African hospital will soon have electricity, thanks to a retired schoolteacher in Hollywood.


Retired English teacher Anna Kerr looked lovingly at the tan and maize map of Malawi on the wall in her Hollywood church office, as one would a priceless treasure.

"I can hardly wait to get to Embangweni," she said, pointing to the small town in Malawi, one of the world's poorest countries, where malnutrition and diseases kill a third of the children before age 5.

On June 27, Anna Kerr and her team of engineers, electricians, nurses, teachers and other "willing helpers" from the First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood will begin a long journey to East Africa to bring electricity to Embangweni Hospital, a 150-bed facility visited by 50,000 outpatients a year.

The project, "Light Up Embangweni," has been in the 68-year-old Downey resident's heart and prayers for more than five years.

Embangweni has tugged at her ever since missionary doctor Paul Jewett told her about delivering babies--even some by caesarean section--in the dim light of a kerosene lantern and keeping premature infants in makeshift incubators of cardboard boxes heated by hot water bottles.

"It seemed unbelievable that there would be a hospital in the world that didn't have electricity in this day and age," Kerr recalled.

She and some of her teammates were already active in several causes: feeding Los Angeles' homeless through a church program called the Lord's Lighthouse, helping economically disadvantaged residents in the area through the Hollywood Urban Project and ministering to skid row denizens.

But bringing light to the faraway hospital seemed just as important as meeting the needs of people at home.

So Kerr, who retired in 1992 after 41 years of teaching in the Norwalk-La Mirada Unified School District, made Embangweni her personal mission and that of her church, which she has attended since her USC student days.

Her first recruit was her husband, Jack, a retired USC public administration professor and mechanical engineer, who has been her teammate in many humanitarian endeavors, including their ministry to the homeless in Los Angeles.

Then, "miracles" began happening, she said.

The first church member she approached, electrician Eli Gutierrez, thought she had read his mind.

"Oh, Anna," he beamed, "I've always wanted to do something like this, but I didn't think they needed electricians."

Gutierrez offered to devote his summer vacation to the project.

No sooner had he signed up than another electrician, Jim Jacklitch, came to Kerr and said, "I hear Eli is going to Africa. May I go, too?"

Then, still another: Jim Griswold, a retired electrical engineer who had worked for Southern California Edison for 35 years.


Along with people came money, too--in small and large sums.

One recent Sunday, a woman came up to Kerr, who is a church elder, and asked, "Would you pray with me about some heavy-duty things?"

Afterward, she handed Kerr an envelope and said, "This is for Embangweni." Inside was a $700 check.

Another time, a woman Kerr hardly knew approached her and said, "Put out your hand."

The woman placed a crisp piece of paper in Kerr's palm and folded her fingers.

"This is for Embangweni," she said.

It was a new $100 bill.

With all the "little miracles" along the way, Anna Kerr not only raised $50,000--enabling the purchase of oxygen generators, wires, pipes and solar panels--but also assembled a 16-member multiethnic team, ranging in age from 14 to 75. They are paying their own way ($3,000 apiece).

Coordinating with Malawi veteran Howell Tumlin of the Medical Benevolence Foundation, a nationwide support group for the 118 Presbyterian mission hospitals around the world, the meticulous schoolteacher has planned the mission down to the last detail.

The group will wire the operating room and major buildings at the 65-bed David Gordon Memorial Hospital in Livingstonia, named after the Scottish explorer and missionary David Livingstone, who journeyed to Lake Malawi in 1859.

"I don't think there has been this kind of excitement since Edison invented the lightbulb," chuckled Jack Kerr, whose father, the late Arnold Neal Kerr, invented butane and propane gas and founded the Imperial Gas Co. "We're going to light up a couple of hospitals that have been dark for a hundred years."


Because of limited on-site accommodations, the Hollywood Presbyterian church team will go in two shifts, the first group departing June 27 and working in Malawi until July 11. The second crew will leave July 14 and stay through July 28.

To conform to Malawi's dress code, the church women, including 14-year-old Jessica Leggewie, are taking long skirts to wear while they work.

The team is taking 20 plastic footlockers containing medications, medical and office supplies, tools, foodstuffs and plenty of yarn for baby wear.

"Several weeks before their babies are due, mothers come to the hospital and stay," Kerr said.

Hospital staffers take advantage of the waiting period to teach mothers health and child care and knitting.

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