A newspaper for ECU faculty and staff
Pieces of Eight


ECU Professors Bring Mobile Health to Indian Communities

By Erica Plouffe Lazure

The efforts of two East Carolina University professors have brought a mobile health van and wound clinic to some of the poorest people in India.

Derek Maher, co-director of ECU’s religious studies program, and Sylvie Debevec Henning, professor of foreign languages, received a $22,000 grant from the Greenville Noon Rotary Club and Rotary International Matching Grant program for a medical van, equipment and salaries for a nurse and project coordinator. The medical van, Maher said, can visit approximately 10 of the 35 communities in the Himachel Pradesh region of northern India two or three times a month, helping more than 7,000 residents.

“We’d love to add a second and third van to our fleet, and extend what the vans do to provide outreach and more health services for these residents,” Maher said. “We are feeling responsible to keep a good thing going and to continue these endeavors in the future.”

A mobile medical van acquired by efforts of ECU faculty will benefit communities in Northern India. (Contributed photo)

The grant has also bolstered efforts by Maher, his wife Jill Jennings, and Henning to found Tong-Len USA, a new non-profit organization designed to help improve the health and quality of life for more than 30,000 residents of impoverished villages in remote northern India.

While Tong-Len USA is new, Maher’s involvement with the people of this region is not. Since 2006, he’s brought three groups of students from ECU to India through the summer study abroad program. Just after the first group left, Maher met a Tibetan Buddhist monk, Jamyang, who had begun to do health and education outreach in these villages. Maher was intrigued by the efforts of this monk, who told Maher he was inspired to help after hearing the Dalai Lama speak about the importance of service.

In the past two years, the residents of these villages have come to know Maher well. He’s brought students from ECU to play and visit with the children and to offer basic health care and education; they sponsored a community picnic and helped to build a community space for children who are unable to attend the Tong-Len boarding school to begin to prepare for basic educational training.

It became clear, after Maher’s first encounter with this community, that their needs were greater and more far reaching than an annual visit. Last year, Maher and Jamyang met with members of the Rotary Club of Dharamsala to seek their support of the Tong-Len project. That group partnered with the Noon Rotary Club in Greenville to sponsor the Matching Grant that has funded the mobile clinic.

“One of the founding Rotarians in Dharamsala told us that people had done similar grant projects for years for the refugee Tibetans, but this was the first time they had done a matching grant for the poor Indians of the region,” Maher said.

Back in Greenville, Maher met with members of the Greenville Noon Rotary Club, Henning, Harry Adams and Ed Davis, who helped to provide partial funding for a wound care clinic. Maher raised the remaining funds from friends and family.

The following year, he again partnered with Henning and others to seek Rotary funds for the mobile clinic. The $22,000 grant from the local club and international organization was sufficient to purchase the van and to hire a nurse and project coordinator.

The medical van arrived in August 2008 and has been helping residents of Himachel Pradesh ever since. In the past few months, Maher and Henning have sought help from area service groups and student organizations, including ECU’s Rotaract Club, a student group of the Rotary Club. The student group is holding fundraisers to provide immunizations, natal care, nutrition, wound care and other treatments.

In addition, a major survey is underway among the residents of the region to establish a baseline of health and quality of life, Maher said.

This page originally appeared in the Jan. 30, 2009 issue of Pieces of Eight. Complete issue is archived at