Partners In Health cofounders speak to Rock Bridge High School class

Tuesday, May 6, 2008 | 9:20 p.m. CDT; updated 3:05 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

COLUMBIA — “Pick tomorrow to be shy, but not today,” Rock Bridge High School teacher Matt Cone told his classroom of nearly 75 people Tuesday afternoon.

Both current and former members of Cone’s “Contemporary Issues” class, along with other Rock Bridge students, gathered Tuesday to receive a call from Partners In Health co-founders Paul Farmer and Ophelia Dahl. Partners In Health is a charitable organization that brings medical care to communities in some of the poorest countries in the world, including Haiti and Rwanda.

Dahl is Partners In Health’s current director and was in high school when she first started with the organization. Farmer was recently interviewed on CBS’s “60 Minutes,” on which he was called one of the “great innovators of our time.” He is also the subject of a book by Tracy Kidder called “Mountains Beyond Mountains.”

The book was assigned reading for Cone’s class. After finishing it, students worked on a project that involved charity work. Students raised $13,000 for Partners In Health last year. This year, 20 students raised $13,400.

Students lined up by the phone to ask Farmer and Dahl a number of questions, including how Haiti has changed (another coup, food riots); how to make a difference (develop a habit of activism); and how Farmer helps the people who need him (“The idea is being present to someone, no matter what their problems,” he said. “Going to someone’s home and listening to them.”).

Scott Skrabal, who is not a student in Cone’s class but read “Mountains Beyond Mountains,” asked Farmer if he thought that he and his organization were getting enough recognition.

“Our community health workers deserve more recognition,” Farmer said, referring to the workers who live in the communities that the Partners In Health’s hospitals serve. The workers aid physicians with “many key medical and paramedical functions,” according to the organization’s Web site,

Cone told Farmer about the fundraising his students had done, including the work of student Kelsey Eckenrode, who went door-to-door to 300 houses.

“Only one turned her down,” Cone said.

Farmer said he was “so impressed” and that he thought that “says something good about the American people.”

“Do you think someone has to live in poverty to understand it?” asked student Brandon Bear.

“No,” Dahl said. “It can help. What it does take is a good imagination.”

Dahl, who is the daughter of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” author Roald Dahl, added that by using pictures, images, films and news, it’s possible to “imagine someone else’s life and put yourself in that situation.”

Students also asked about issues of foreign policy, to which Farmer responded with criticism of the Clinton administration’s actions in Haiti but praise for the current administration’s AIDS response, which he called “generous.”

“I think there is no easy solution when you inherit such a murky mire of foreign policy,” Dahl said.

Cone stressed the importance of teaching movements in American schools, arguing that there’s often a “focus on the individual, rather than looking at the movements,” even though it’s the movements that affect the most change. He used the civil rights movement as an example.

Farmer agreed.

“There’s just no end to what you can do as a collective rather than alone,” Farmer said.

The phone interview lasted for about an hour. Before Dahl hung up, she said: “This phone call is one of my favorite things of the year. Knowing that we’re linked to you is pretty uplifting.”

The phone conversation with Farmer and Dahl was one of many that Cone’s “Contemporary Issues” class has had this year. Previous speakers included Noam Chomsky and Laura Bush. On May 28, Adam Hochchild will speak to a book group put together by Cone. Hochchild is the author of “Bury the Chains,” an account of a grassroots campaign to end slavery in 19th century Britain.

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