- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 21, 2002

Staff writer Denise Barnes interviewed Elvira Williams, executive director of AHEAD, which provides assistance to underserved communities in the United States and Africa.

Question: What inspired you and Dr. Williams to establish AHEAD Inc.?
Answer: I was on faculty at Howard University during the time the Peace Corps was starting in the 1960s. I had an opportunity to work in some of the training programs, and I thought the Peace Corps was a tremendous humanitarian effort. As I worked on faculties at different universities, I had a lot of direct involvement with students and faculty from Africa.
My husband went to Boston in 1967 during that time he was doing his postdoctoral work in adolescent medicine at Harvard University. He volunteered to work on a sickle cell anemia project there and organized several support programs for parents of children with sickle cell anemia. So, in 1973, Dr. Williams hosted a conference at Harvard University and asked Sen. Edward M. Kennedy to be his keynote speaker. At the time, Sen. Kennedy explained that the United States didn't have many black professionals especially doctors working in African countries. He asked my husband if he would consider going to Africa to provide medical care.
We went and worked in Tanzania in east Africa and were extremely impressed with the people there who had so much less than Americans. We found there was a lot of suffering and death of children from diseases due to lack of immunization. My husband saw three and four children die of measles every day, which was unknown here in the United States. He set up a immunization program. Back in the 1960s, the World Heath Organization and the United States Agency for International Development had sent vaccines into Tanzania and about one half of the children died. So before my husband immunized the children, he decided to build the children up nutritionally and then he started immunizing them.
Q: What is AHEAD's mission?
A: Our mission is to improve the quality of life by implementing programs that lead to self-sufficiency and self-reliance in health, education and agriculture. We have three main goals: The first is to reduce and eliminate disease and premature death. The second is to cultivate and advance healthy living. The third is to foster sustainable environmental activity.
Q: How does AHEAD get the word out about the organization's efforts and future projects?
A: We're planning our First Annual Celebrity Golf Tournament on Monday, June 10, at Chantilly National Golf & Country Club in Centreville, Va. Right now, we're looking for sponsors and for people who just want to come out and play golf with celebrities. The money that's raised will go to help us with our programs in Tanzania. In addition to immunization, we have a prenatal care program, we work with family planning, we work with health education and we have a tremendous teen-action program.
Q: What does the teen-action program entail?
A: That program helps young people to feel positive about themselves and to make wise choices. The underlying thing is to prevent teen pregnancy and to keep youth from violence [in Tanzania]. We piloted this program in 1996 through 1998 at Garnet-Patterson Middle School in Northwest. It was very successful, and we had lots of parental support. We realize with young people they have to feel good about themselves and have a strong support system. In the Shaw and Columbia Heights communities there are lots of Hispanics, blacks, a few children from the Caribbean and a few Asians who attended the school. So we stressed camaraderie, because children need to understand and respect different cultures so they can then have positive interaction.
For example, we worked with peer counseling, we worked on conflict resolution. We helped with tutorials working with young people tutoring them in English and math. We also set up a program where some of the students visited area businesses to get an idea as to what's required to run a successful business. Plus the children went skating and we had pizza parties just lots of family activities.
We started a teen-action program in Tanzania; although we don't have the cultural challenges in Africa, we do have the poverty. But the main point is that we are working trying to prevent HIV/AIDS. Most of the money committed to HIV/AIDS is going into research for an AIDS vaccine. Our thinking is, let's try and prevent the behavior. In our teen-action program, we do a lot with HIV prevention, and it has gone very well. Six years ago, we were invited to travel to a number of countries one of which was Namibia and we did feasibility for primary health care and HIV prevention. We looked at student youth programs and youth development and leadership programs. Our basic focus trying to help people help themselves.
Q: What are some of AHEAD's other programs?
A: We run a camp for youth and young adults in Gambia. And we also work to help people with leadership skills in Africa. We are hoping to help people with their business acumen especially youth and women. This year, we are looking forward to starting another teen-action program in our area. We plan to pilot the program in Montgomery County. In December, we were approached by a refugee foundation so we attended a workshop with teachers and counselors from Maryland and Virginia. Apparently, immigrant and refugee children are having a lot of trouble in schools in terms of acceptance and in terms of making a transition to a new culture.
What we want to do here is to help strengthen the relationships of children from different backgrounds and from different cultures. We think it's critical just look at Columbine. We think that this program has the potential of preventing terrorism.
Q: What does AHEAD Inc. need?
A: We need medicines and medical supplies, especially an autoclave an instrument that allows us to sterilize our equipment and scalpvein and 23 gauge needles for immunizing children. We need money to help people buy solar cookers to pasteurize water. $10 can provide a person or family with the facilities to pasteurize their water to provide eight glasses of clean water for a minimum of two years. We also need latex gloves we take them to Africa and people will wash the gloves until they deteriorate.
Q: Since AHEAD's inception, how many volunteers have traveled to Africa to be a part of this effort?
A: We first started taking doctors and nurses in the 1980s. Then my friends in academia suggested we provide opportunities for undergraduate and graduate students to travel and work in Africa. Individuals and organizations have provided scholarships to some students. A lot of our students at historically black colleges do not have the resources, but they have the interest. Since 1988, we have taken about 150 volunteers to Africa, where we live in rural areas there's no electricity and no running water, but it's tremendously fulfilling. The people give so much of themselves and are so appreciative of what little we can do for them. You know, people can always donate money to support students who want to live and work in Africa for a month up to one year.
Q: How does a person go about becoming a volunteer with AHEAD?
A: Just by contacting AHEAD, and we'll send them an application. Basically, the application asks what involvement they've had in community activities and school activities. We take folks who are interested in going to Africa and working we've had people who went to help build latrines, or paint or do carpentry. You don't need specific credentials, just a willingness to give of yourself.


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