Dr. Robert Bland’s global disaster relief and anti-poverty work began a few years ago with water and a telephone call.
“When the tsunami hit in South Asia in 2004, the magnitude of that struck home to me. We talked about it at our church, St. Patrick’s in Thousand Oaks, and how we could respond,” he told the Episcopal News recently.
Building on already-established local relationships, a coordinated community-wide effort was launched and afterwards “we decided we wanted to keep it going,” recalled Bland, a member of the diocesan program group on global partnerships.
He founded the Conejo Compassion Coalition to provide global relief and assistance to disaster victims and those affected by poverty.
“This has been my passion for a long time, without really knowing what to do about it,” added Bland, 76, a retired U.S. Navy engineer. “It’s one of those things that’s been on my heart for a while now, issues of disaster relief and world poverty.”
Then he received a phone call from Charles Nangosia, who described his own efforts to establish a medical clinic to aid the residents of Lwaboba, a small rural village in eastern Uganda, where he grew up.
“I shared the vision of what I’m doing,” recalled Nangosia, in a March 21 telephone interview with the Episcopal News.
“A lot of charities are really focused in Africa, but it always ends up in areas around the cities,” he said. “Nobody wants to venture out to rural areas. But, when you get into rural areas you come to realize that there’s a huge, huge poverty and lack of water.”
Clean water leads to successful medical care
The Consejo Compassion Coalition (CCC) partnered with Nangosia, who was trying to repurpose his three-bedroom home into a medical clinic. Less than half, or 49 percent, of Ugandan households have access to health care, he said.
That’s how the clean water project was conceived.
“As we got involved, trying to help bring that about, in the process we found out that even perhaps more important was the need for clean drinking water there,” Bland recalled.
“There was no water in the village; they had to walk quite a distance to find a well,” he recalled. “The wells were more like a hole in the ground, and it’s dirty, muddy water. People would gather there and boil or find some way to try and purify and use it,” he said. “There were so many diseases attributed to the lack of clean water — dysentery and cholera — and we knew that because we were trying to work with the medical clinic as well.”
So, CCC went to work, holding fundraisers at St. Patrick’s and elsewhere. They raised about $30,000 for a geological survey to determine if water was available and to hire a drilling company to dig a borehole and install a pump. Eventually an elevated reservoir, a spigot and a pipe system were added to make pumping well water easier.
“Now people are coming from other villages for water and the new water source has served as a supply of running water for the medical center,” he said.
The new well put the village on the map as a local source of clean water. It also paved the way for expansion of the medical clinic into a 4,800-square-foot, 24-bed hospital, dedicated in August 2013.
“We are in the process of raising funds to buy some of the more expensive medical equipment they need to expand treatment options available there at the hospital,” Bland said.
Schools, microloans and housing
CCC has also reached out to local schools, “helping to fund everything from books to science lab equipment to computers and scholarships for children” and is assisting families via a new partnership with The Greater Contribution, a Thousand Oaks-based nonprofit agency that grants microloans to women.
Karon Wright founded The Greater Contribution in 2006 with three other women “who wanted to give back in some way, make a greater contribution” to eliminating extreme poverty by 2015, the aim of the United Nations Millennium Development Goals.
They decided that microloans of $150-300 would have the greatest impact in the lives of women in countries like Uganda. The amount may seem small in the United States but in developing countries, “they give a woman the ability to literally turn her life around” through education, training and small business start-ups, Wright said.
Through CCC, Wright, 67, reached out to the women of Lwaboba and neighboring villages, where she recently spent several weeks offering business training and funding 105 loans.
“Bob’s organization is providing us with office space and a space for the women to meet and a space where we could train them,” she said. “They’re also paying for the internet connection which was desperately needed.”
Within six months, most loan grantees double their income, whether through raising chickens, sewing or other businesses. Benefits include better food and nutrition, increased healthcare and education for families. It’s a revolving loan system: about 98 percent of the loans are repaid and the money is lent out again. She estimated that about 40,000 people in Uganda, East Africa, Zambia and Malawi have been aided by the loans.
“Ordinary people like you and me can do something extraordinary,” Wright said. “For $100 we can turn a family’s life around — isn’t that amazing? You don’t have to wipe out your 401K or sell your house to literally save someone’s life.”
She added, “It’s a hand-up, not a handout, and an opportunity for people to do something really meaningful with their money,” she said. “Instead of buying a new cell phone every year, give $100 and save a family.”
The CCC has also recently completed the pilot phase of a home-building project on the outskirts of Haiti’s capital city Port-au-Prince, Bland said.
“We are working with a local group to rebuild homes destroyed by the 2010 earthquake,” he said. “We have just built eight homes and from that we have developed a model for how we will build earthquake-safe but cost-effective homes for people. Now, we want to launch the production phase and we’ve identified the first 20 families that we want to build homes for and we’re looking to start that very soon.”
The work has spread, from the United States to Uganda to Haiti to Sri Lanka and elsewhere but Bland regards the efforts simply as “fundamental to what we’re called to do as Christians. It’s just at the heart of what Jesus calls us to do.”
Nangosia, 42, an Amazon training manager who lives in Virginia, said Bland continues to raise funds to pay for salaries for part-time doctors and nurses at the Lwaboba hospital, which has treated over 16,000 people since its doors first opened in 2009.
“He is very humble, very quiet,” he said of Bland. “You don’t know all the things he’s done around the world; how he’s concerned not only for people in Africa but all over the world. Haiti, the United States, wherever the issues are, he wants to see what we can do. He has not only influenced me but a lot of others, too. To me, he is a special individual. He is what it means to be a Christian.
“This is a guy who really practices what he preaches.”