Norwich Man Steps Back, But Works Go On in Honduras
Dr. Dean Seibert and volunteer Dr. Jaime Boyona consult with a family with disabled children in the village of Los Planes. (Contributed photograph)
Farmers in the region where ACTS volunteers visit head to their fields in the morning. (Contributed photograph)
Volunteer Rima Shah meets with neighborhood kids. (Contributed photograph)
ACTS volunteers meet with village leaders around the new “pila,’’ or water trough, in the village of Los Orreros. (Contributed photograph)
Dean Seibert, who has been involved with a health and community development organization that brings help to Honduras, is shown at his home in Norwich. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)
Several years ago, Peter Mason attended a speech given by Dr. Paul Farmer, the co-founder, along with former Dartmouth President Jim Yong Kim, of the international health organization Partners in Health. The model Farmer and his colleagues use to improve the quality of life for the world’s poorest people — by first treating immediate health needs, then building clinics and training local people as community health workers — has received international praise, yet it didn’t strike Mason, a physician at Alice Peck Day Memorial Hospital in Lebanon, as entirely novel.
He thought Farmer’s method was the same used by Mason’s friend Dean Seibert of Norwich, a retired Dartmouth Medical School professor who has volunteered for more than 20 years with the Upper Valley-based organization Americans Caring, Teaching, Sharing (ACTS). With ACTS, Seibert has made roughly three dozen trips to a rural village in Honduras to provide medical care and improve the health infrastructure and quality of life around the village.
“That’s what Dean has been all about, since I’ve been down there with him: teaching people to use proper hygeine, teaching them to build latrines, teaching them to grow food that’s healthier, teaching them how to use good nutrition to prevent diabetes and high blood pressure,” Mason said of Seibert.
Relying solely on volunteer labor and contributions, and with far less name recognition than other aid organizations, Seibert and the ACTS volunteer teams who have traveled to Honduras five or six times each year for more than a quarter century have managed to raise the standard of living for the people of El Rosario, Honduras. Where gastrointestinal and respiratory diseases were once common among the villagers, an improved water system, the construction of latrines and building better stoves has greatly reduced the incidence of these illnesses.
There’s now a health clinic that’s run by an ACTS-trained volunteer nurse, who provides ongoing care in El Rosario and surrounding villages in between visits from ACTS physicians. An abandoned school was transformed into a regional educational center and library, with the help of Dartmouth student volunteers, and the leaders of El Rosario dedicated the building in Seibert’s name.
Having celebrated his 80th birthday in August, Seibert has stepped down from his role as president of ACTS’ steering committee. Its work to improve health, education and agricultural practices in rural Honduran villages continues.
On Seibert’s most recent trip to Honduras in October, “the thing that was so remarkable for me, because I hadn’t been there for six months or so, was to get a fresh perspective and appreciation for how much we have achieved,” he said. Success stories abound, like that of Carlos, left unable to walk after a childhood bout with polio, but now travelling outside his rural village thanks to a trained horse.
Going to Honduras with ACTS was a logical move for Seibert, who has long sought to address what he calls “the specific challenge of providing good medical care across cultural borders.” In the wake of natural disasters like the southeast Asia tsunami of 2004 and humanitarian crises like the civil wars in Kosovo and Liberia, Seibert traveled to those areas to provide critical medical care to survivors and refugees.
His work in Honduras has often resembled his efforts in the 1970s to bring quality care to Navajo, Hopi and other Native American groups in the western United States. He took part in a joint project between the Indian Health Service and NASA that tested how two-way television could improve the quality of care in isolated reservation communities and worked with community health representatives who connected IHS with traditional Native American communities. Those experiences shaped his belief that improving both health and quality of life in poor communities “is a complex challenge that requires working with more than just a specific disease or illness.”
ACTS was formed 26 years ago by several members of a Congregational church in Franconia, N.H., who were concerned about U.S. policy in Central America, which at that point involved covertly providing aid and weapons to rebels fighting the Sandinista government in Nicaragua. “I think their sense was that something more constructive could be done than shipping arms to Honduras,” Seibert said of the founders of ACTS.
They found their mission in El Rosario, a poor farming community located in a rural, mountainous region of Honduras. Pressing health problems found among villagers made health care the first priority for ACTS, as it often is for non-governmental organizations in the developing world. Then the organization began to branch out and make attempts to remedy the problems that were at the root of the diseases prevalent in and around El Rosario.
Chief among these has been the poor quality of the village’s water, which was unsafe to drink or use for personal hygiene. “From a medical perspective, if you don’t have a sufficient amount of water, nothing seems possible,” Seibert said. ACTS, partnering with student members of the Engineers without Borders chapter at Northeastern University, has designed a new water distribution system, where water is brought to a central reservoir and distributed to individual households.
“That has just been an enormous boost, in that it has certainly reduced the amounts of illness we encounter,” Seibert said. The organization has also worked with villagers to build ventilated adobe stoves that improve air quality in their homes, and are safer for young children.
As ACTS established its presence in El Rosario and neighboring villages, the organization constructed a medical clinic that was completed in the late 1980s. By then, the ACTS trips were drawing a group of physicians, including Dennis McCullough of Norwich, who later recruited Seibert to the organization. Aware of Seibert’s interest in delivering health care to under-served people, McCullough also thought Seibert was “very well-positioned, as I had been, to recruit medical students to go down. And I think that really makes a difference, an early exposure to give students a perspective on what it means to be practicing medicine in this country, as opposed to a place where there are fewer resources.”
Arriving in El Rosario, Seibert found a village whose people “were on the very edge, in terms of hunger, all of the time,” and whose livelihood as farmers was threatened by hurricanes and other natural disasters. The group found a local woman, who was in Seibert’s words “not very well-trained, but enthusiastic and interested,” and taught her to respond to the medical needs of the community. “She has become a very competent provider, and she is there 24/7,” he said.
What ACTS has avoided is what Mason calls a “brigade” approach to providing health care in the developing world, which occurs when medical professionals visit communities in need of care and treat the immediate problems, without establishing any plan for continued care.
“It’s very unsatisfying, because you know that whatever problems you treat are only going to be temporarily ameliorated,” said Mason, who has made several ACTS trips to Honduras and will lead the next trip in January. “If you’re treating parasites, they’re going to be back in a very short period of time, maybe two weeks, three weeks, two months later. There’s no sense that you’re doing anything with lasting value.”
In its work to improve life in El Rosario, ACTS has partnered with other nonprofits, like Engineers Without Borders and The Children’s Initiative, a Portland, Maine-based group. Each of these organizations has latched onto a different aspect of ACTS’ work; TCI helped fund the new community center and will send teams of teachers from the U.S. to El Rosario to train teachers in the village, while also building a school for the village’s middle and high schoolers — a major development, given that most rural Hondurans have little more than a sixth-grade education. Meanwhile, Sustainable Harvest International has educated villagers to be agricultural extension agents, who can educate farmers about sustainable land use and farming practices.
Taking the time to train local people to better their community has been another important component in ACTS’ success, said Helen Whyte of Lyme, an ACTS board member who traveled to Honduras as part of a team late last year.
“They’ve been there a long time and really know the community, (so) they’ve developed a leadership in that community that is now reaching out and developing leadership in surrounding communities. That’s so important in sustainability,” Whyte said.
The work in El Rosario and the surrounding area is by no means finished. Medical challenges persist: there’s a young girl named Gloria who has severe deformities in her hands and feet that limit her mobility. ACTS physicians are trying to determine ways to help her walk, so she can attend school and eventually lead an independent life. But doctors aren’t the only people who have something to contribute to an ACTS team, Seibert said, and the organization pulls volunteers from all walks of life. “Because there’s such a broad range of initiatives, there is something for every ACTS member, regardless of their interest or training,” he said.
As Seibert steps back from the active role he’s played in ACTS for two decades, he takes pride in the strides ACTS has made in El Rosario, which is now held as a model for surrounding villages.
“There are some communities we are working with now that are essentially where El Rosario was 25 years ago,” he said. “To be reminded that this could have been El Rosario a quarter of a century ago, and to appreciate what has been achieved ... it’s just a very, very satisfactory observation, and gives one a great sense of optimism, because one can witness what can be achieved if you stick with it long enough.”
ACTS information can be found at www.actshonduras.org.
Katie Beth Ryan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 603-727-3242.