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Judy Foreman: Global Neighborhood Fund Goes the Distance for Last Mile Health

Thanks in part to Santa Barbara nonprofit organization, Dr. Raj Panjabi and his team are making a health-care difference in Liberia

Dr. Raj Panjabi, co-founder and CEO of Last Mile Health, recently spoke to a gathering of the Global Neighborhood Fund, which was co-founded by Sandra Tyler, left, and Connie Smith, along with Nancy Koppelman. Click to view larger
Dr. Raj Panjabi, co-founder and CEO of Last Mile Health, recently spoke to a gathering of the Global Neighborhood Fund, which was co-founded by Sandra Tyler, left, and Connie Smith, along with Nancy Koppelman. (Judy Foreman / Noozhawk photo)

It was seven years ago when I first learned of Last Mile Health and its work in the war-torn West African nation of Liberia.

The country was resurrecting its economy and infrastructure under the leadership of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who had broken political and cultural barriers to become the first woman ever elected as a head of state on the continent of Africa.

Liberia had a long way to go, however, and was in desperate need of outside assistance.

At the time, three Montecito dynamos — Nancy Koppelman, Connie Smith and Sandra Tyler — had recently founded the Global Neighborhood Fund under the auspices of the Santa Barbara Foundation. They held a launch party for their nonprofit organization, whose ambitious mission is to provide grassroots grants to underserved communities in developing countries.

During the event, GNF members selected the first grantees in the areas of health care, clean water and women’s reproductive rights.

Chosen for one of the very first grants was Last Mile Health, which partners with government to integrate networks of community health professionals into the public health system to help those living “at the last mile” — far beyond the reach of traditional care.

Earlier this month, the GNF hosted an intimate sunset reception for about 100 guests at the Santa Barbara Club. The guest of honor was none other than Dr. Raj Panjabi, a co-founder and CEO of Last Mile Health and an associate physician in the Division of Global Health Equity at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston and an instructor at Harvard Medical School.

Panjabi, who had escaped Liberia’s civil war as a boy only to return as a young medical student to help restore it, has achieved global acclaim for his work. Fortune named him one of the “The World’s Greatest Leaders” in 2015 (along with Sirleaf) and, last year, Time recognized him on its list of the “100 Most Influential People” with an essay written by former President Bill Clinton.

Thanks to the services of Last Mile Health, fewer isolated rural residents are dying of preventable diseases in Liberia. Click to view larger
Thanks to the services of Last Mile Health, fewer isolated rural residents are dying of preventable diseases in Liberia. (Last Mile Health photo)

This year, Panjabi has earned both the 2017 TED Prize and the Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship.

Despite the heaviness of the crises that Last Mile Health is addressing, Panjabi is a very upbeat individual. The GNF event was a celebration of progress in health care, hard work and partnerships, which includes one with Goleta-based Direct Relief, a provider of humanitarian medical aid here and abroad.

Panjabi highlighted his history, both personal and professional, and his commitment to developing and expanding Last Mile Health.

The ultimate goal, he said, is to provide a trained professional community health-care worker for “everyone, everywhere, every day” in a world where, currently, more than 1 billion people living in the last mile do not have such access.

When Panjabi first returned to Liberia in 2005, he found his home country’s health-care system in utter devastation. Only 50 doctors remained for 4 million people, he said.

With a small Liberian team and $6,000 he received instead of gifts at his wedding, Panjabi co-founded Last Mile Health. As the nonprofit organization has grown, so has its success. Thanks to its services, fewer isolated rural residents are dying of preventable diseases.

“We train for several months, in everything from malaria to disease surveillance for Ebola,” he said. “Ebola was a wake-up call.”

With Last Mile Health’s help, the Liberian government committed to getting more health-care workers into the field. In addition to overall health improvements, 50,000 patients were treated in 2016; 2,600 community health-care workers were recruited; and 2,300 have been trained.

The new jobs the system provides are an added benefit, and there are numerous anecdotes of the pride and commitment exhibited by these esteemed members of their villages, Panjabi said.

Given the organization’s demonstrable success, Panjabi wants to expand the Last Mile Health model beyond Liberia. With his TED Prize he’s creating a Community Health Academy, a global platform to train, connect and empower community health workers.

“Trained health-care workers in the Liberian field could be a great model and game changer for rural America and the health crisis that is front and center in our country today,” he added.

Members of the Global Neighborhood Fund are proud to have supported the work of Last Mile Health.

“GNF volunteers underwrite its activities so that every dollar raised through their collective giving and donations goes directly to their projects, which strengthen communities,” Koppelman told Noozhawk.

“Members and friends are invited to participate in educational events, learn together and connect personally with award-winning social entrepreneurs and grassroots change makers like Dr. Raj Panjabi.”

Click here for more information about the Global Neighborhood Fund. Click here to make an online donation.

— Judy Foreman is a Noozhawk columnist and longtime local writer and lifestyles observer. She can be contacted at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Click here for previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.

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