A Light Shines in Zimbabwe / Public Service Rewarded
by Michelle Simmons
April 1, 2009
Susan Heppenstall '61 with the children of Mt. Selinda.
Susan McDowell Heppenstall ’61 first dreamt of Africa during her student days at Dickinson.
“Sociology was my major, and I was always a Margaret Mead kind of person. I love different cultures, particularly Africa,” she says. But when she graduated, she followed a more traditional path, becoming a social worker, marrying John Heppenstall ’61, raising five children and returning to school for a nursing degree. She’s been a nurse for 22 years.
That dream of Africa stayed with her, though. So, in 2006, Heppenstall and her friend and fellow nurse, Ann Leroux, connected with Global Ministries, a shared mission partnership with the United Church of Christ, and took their first trip to Mt. Selinda, a settlement tucked deep in the Chirinda Forest in the southwest corner of Zimbabwe.
“I wanted to travel, I wanted to go to Africa and I’m a nurse,” she explains. “Global Ministries said, ‘Hey, there’s a little hospital in Zimbabwe that would love to have you come.’ So off I went.”
The mission includes a 100-bed hospital, the Daisy Dube Children’s Home (an orphanage) and several rural clinics. For six weeks, Heppenstall and Leroux worked mornings in the hospital and afternoons at the orphanage next door. They learned what HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria were doing to the population there. They washed laundry by hand in a communal tub, read to and played with the children, taught the nursing staff how to quilt. And they fell in love with the people and the place.
When Heppenstall and Leroux returned to the United States, they decided that their work had to continue, so the two formed A Light for Zimbabwe, a nonprofit organization that sends food, medical supplies, books, clothing, bicycles—you name it, according to Heppenstall—to Mt. Selinda and surrounding villages.
“We even send soccer balls,” she adds. “The first time we were there, the kids were kicking around garbage bags tied with string, yet soccer is their national sport. So that’s one of the things we make sure they get—the children were so delighted.”
Their most recent shipment, a 40-foot container filled with supplies and food, left the United States in October after months of fundraising, collecting supplies, packing and logistical wrangling. The shipment was a coordinated effort with several churches and another nonprofit for Zimbabwe, Tekeshe Foundation.
A Light for Zimbabwe also has bought livestock for the orphanage, and friends and family help sponsor several orphans and college education for a student in Zimbabwe. Next steps include developing new life-skills programs for the women and children at Mt. Selinda and more health-care outreach into the surrounding rural areas.
Heppenstall, who lives in New Hampshire, has been back to Zimbabwe twice since her first trip in 2006 and she returned in February. With a 90-percent unemployment rate, daily political upheaval and growing malnutrition there, she worries that people are getting desperate.
“Many of the nurses and doctors we really relied on in Mt. Selinda had to return to their villages and take care of their families,” she says. “That leaves you with a hospital running with one very young doctor and a handful of senior nurses still there. I feel compelled to go back and do what I can—to just be another pair of hands.”
Although she continues to work part time as an intensive-care nurse, her full-time concern is Mt. Selinda. In building the organization, she has learned how to work with pharmaceutical and medical suppliers, shipping companies, customs agents and a host of other agencies and individuals to get the supplies where they need to be.
“I have this little office in an alcove in my bedroom, and it’s spilled over into the living room and everywhere else,” she says. “It’s very time-consuming, but you have to keep doing the practical part of it on this end in order to do the good part.”
She adds, “The need is just tremendous. What we do is a drop in the bucket. No, I can’t do everything, but I can’t say I won’t do anything. We’re taking that one step and the second step and the third step, and we’ll make a difference in that village.”
For more information, visit www.alightforzimbabwe.org.