By Elisabeth Freeman
President at International Center for Professional Development
Executive Director at Legacy Direct
Alumna of CSU Channel Islands
People in Africa are dying alarmingly early in life, primarily from preventable or treatable diseases. AIDS continues to be a prolific killer, but so are diseases tied to starvation, poor infrastructure and lack of sanitation.
I have already outlived 80 percent of my childhood classmates in Zimbabwe. This realization drives home just how fortunate I have been to access the medical treatment and quality of life in the United States, but it also underscores the tragedy of the health disparities that exist in this world.
After coming to California, my education at CSU Channel Islands started with optimism of finding a cure for AIDS and relieving the suffering for millions in Africa. As I went through the biology program, I learned that the problem was more complex – not just from a medical standpoint but also in terms of education, infrastructure and resources.
CSU Channel Islands connected me with an internship at Amgen, where I worked with an incredible mentor and renowned scientist who allowed me to co-discover a new protein formulation for medical drugs. It was an amazing place to learn about scientific research and technology, but equally important it was a company with a global reach and immense resources.
Many of my efforts since have been affiliated with and at least partially funded by Amgen. This allowed me to work with the Biotechnology Institute – leading a scholarship program that brought together young minority scientists and those firmly established in the industry. Amgen’s support later brought about the creation of the International Center for Professional Development. Through ICPD, I have been able to continue matching young, promising students with mentors in the scientific community.
Legacy Direct was established with a specific focus on Africa. I recently spent eight weeks in a small village called Matetsi, just within the borders of Zimbabwe. Here, in the shadows of Victoria Falls and other tourist destinations, people suffer from lack of food, water, infrastructure and education. One meal a day is common and access to medicine virtually non-existent. Rallying the resources and talents of safari goers who travel to Zimbabwe to experience the African wilderness, Legacy Direct is building a school, community center and health clinic.
I spent the early part of my eight-week trip negotiating permits with the government while also trying to secure materials and supplies. It was a process that could be frustrating at times. The reward came at the end of the trip, when I returned to the village to find that the locals had gathered shovels and tools and had already started digging the foundation for the buildings.
I see great hope in Matetsi. The women of the village are especially determined to learn and to give their children an opportunity they never had. To think of the possibility that through our school, a child from the Matetsi area might become a doctor or a scientist one day is just thrilling.
Legacy Direct is committed to ensuring that the villagers we work with won’t rely on external support. We plan for the school to be self-sustaining, with vegetable gardens to help teach science and farming techniques, but also feed the children. Arts and crafts produced in the classroom will be sold to tourists locally to provide financial support for the community. This comes from a firm belief that dependency is not progress. We are providing short-term aid, tools and education to help African villagers secure for themselves a brighter future.
It is human nature to like the simple, elegant solution – in other words “the cure”. Yet, deep-rooted, complex problems often defy simple solutions. The enormity of the public health challenges we face can be daunting, but by building bridges between those with needs and those with means, progress is made. The lives of people in at least one small community are changed forever.
Note: Freeman is additionally featured in the “Working for California” project that celebrates CSU alumni leaders.