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ECU professors aid impoverished in India

GREENVILLE, N.C.   (Jan. 2, 2009)   —   The efforts of two East Carolina University professors have brought a mobile health van and wound clinic to some of the poorest people in northern India.

Derek Maher, co-director of ECU’s religious studies program, and Sylvie Debevec Henning, professor of foreign languages at ECU, received a $22,000 grant from the Greenville Noon Rotary Club and Rotary International Matching Grant program this summer 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.”

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 pockets of northern India.

The U.S. chapter of the organization joins those already established in Scotland and India.

While the formation of the Tong-Len USA organization is new, Maher’s involvement with the people of this region, and its organizers, is not.

Since 2006, he’s brought three groups of students from ECU to this region of 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’d told Maher he was inspired to find a way to help the Dharamsala community after hearing the Dalai Lama speak about the importance of service.

“He said, ‘So often we speak about helping others, but when a crisis or a disaster hits, it is always the Christians who provide aid,’” Maher said. “Jamyang wanted to find a way for a Buddhists to get involved and to provide assistance to those in need.”

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. These are known as “tuition tents” even though the service is free.

It became clear, that the community's 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.

Back in Greenville, Maher met with Henning, Harry Adams and Ed Davis, members of the Greenville Noon Rotary Club, 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, nutrition, wound care and other treatments.


Contact: Derek Maher | 252-328-5332