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A world away, Kenyans' distress hits home

The turmoil there prompts two women in L.A. to found a group to provide aid.

October 06, 2008|Ann M. Simmons | Times Staff Writer

Debra Akello watched in horror as television news reports flashed images of her Kenyan countrymen engaged in bloody ethnic battles.

"Do you see what's happening in my country?" a distraught Akello asked her close friend and mentor Joy Dorsey Burton. "People are dying. People are being displaced from their homes. . . . And many don't have access to medical care."

The violence broke out after December's controversial presidential election in the East African nation, and Burton was equally disturbed by the carnage. Burton offered her longtime pal some advice:

"Let's not feel bad about it. Let's do something about it."

That night, Akello couldn't sleep.

"It was all I could think of," said Akello, 34, a registered nurse and widowed mother of a teenage daughter.

Suddenly in her insomnia, an idea popped into her head. She would launch a nonprofit group aimed at providing humanitarian assistance and medical services to needy Kenyans.

"We have so much here in the United States," said Akello, who came to America 14 years ago and lives in Saugus. "We can help show [Kenyans] how to improve their lives. And I believe a lot of lives can be saved."

Burton, 51, a financial planner with almost two decades of corporate management experience, was instantly on board. But some friends and relatives thought the women were dreaming.

"You guys are crazy," was the initial reaction of Akello's older brother, Steve Odanga, she recalled.

Burton remembers the caution from her daughter Shoshanna: "Mom, you've got enough on your plate. Why do you need something else?"

Akello and Burton would not be deterred. They decided to call their group Helping Hands International Foundation.

The group would start with bringing medical relief to Kenyans, Burton said, with the aim of launching projects to help tackle world hunger and homelessness.

They started from scratch, searching the Internet for companies that offer assistance with creating nonprofit corporations. They found a package that cost about $300.

Applying for tax-exempt status required the women to fill out a questionnaire with dozens of queries, including how many people they hoped to help and the mortality rate in Kenya. They also crafted a 26-page proposal to be sent to the IRS.

"We went back and forth," Akello recalled.

"Debra would call me sometimes at 6 a.m.," Burton said.

"I would say, 'I've got a great idea,' " Akello chimed in.

As their application for nonprofit status was being processed, Akello was busy pushing her venture to doctors and fellow nurses at Providence Holy Cross Medical Center in Mission Hills, where she works in the intensive care unit.

Akello's pitch was simple: She was launching a humanitarian nonprofit and needed medical professionals to volunteer their time and services.

"That's been something I've always wanted to do," said Dr. Hillary Chollet, a trauma and vascular surgeon at Providence.

He is one of five medical professionals so far who have committed to working with Helping Hands.

"For someone like myself, there are two important elements of happiness: the ability to grow intellectually and the ability to give back," Chollet added. He hopes to help set up a trauma center in Kenya, train medical personnel there and start a program called Grandma Knows Best, to help matriarchs raise their children and grandchildren and to teach them to avoid violence and risky sexual behavior.

"Our goal is to educate, to train, to empower," Chollet said.

It took weeks of phone calls, e-mails and consultations for Akello to enlist the help of Direct Relief International. The Santa Barbara-based medical assistance and disaster relief agency provides medical supplies and pharmaceuticals to physicians traveling to vulnerable places. The company has agreed to donate almost $15,000 in general antibiotics to Akello's group, a gesture that Kristin Brown, the agency's corporate liaison, said seemed fitting.

"We receive donations of medical supplies and we want to put them in the hands of providers who will use them to help people regardless of their ability to pay or their political affiliations," Brown said.

Akello's passion and persistence helped seal the deal with Brown -- as they did with Mark House, a sales representative for St. Jude Medical Inc., a global cardiovascular device company, headquartered in St. Paul, Minn.

House, who is based at the company's Cardiac Rhythm Management division in Sylmar, happened to meet Akello while following up with a patient at Northridge Hospital Medical Center. Within 10 minutes Akello had convinced House that he should get his company to donate pacemakers to the doctors in her group.

"Debra's enthusiasm is just intoxicating, to the point that I will try to get other vendors to donate," House said. "I told her, just let me know how many you need, and we will make it happen."

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