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Overcoming Odds: Brothers Graduate from Dartmouth, Build Clinic in Native Kenyan Village

Milton Ochieng’ always had in the back of his mind to help his rural village in western Kenya. But neither he nor his younger brother, Fred, ever dreamed they would study medicine at a U.S. university and go on to open a health clinic.

The nearest hospital growing up was 20 miles away from Lwala. Roads were hardly passable during the rainy season. “So people would wait until they were deathly ill before they went to the hospital,” Milton tells Diverse. He recalls one friend’s mother who had complications during childbirth and had to be pushed to the hospital in a wheelbarrow. She died 45 minutes into the 2 hour journey and her lifeless body had to be pushed back to the village.

The brothers grew up knowing something needed to be done. Their father —a chemistry teacher — often talked to his children about how badly Lwala needed accessible health care and dreamt of someday building a clinic for the village.

Despite — or maybe because of — the difficult conditions, people in Lwala looked out for one another. When Milton won a scholarship to study at Dartmouth College, villagers sold their chickens and cows, pooled their resources and raised enough money to buy the $900 plane ticket to the United States.

‘I felt at home with the poverty’

In his second year at Dartmouth Milton, along with fellow classmates and professors, went on a service trip to Central America to help build a health clinic. That two-week trip in December 2001 started a chain of events that would profoundly shape Milton’s life.

Though it was across the world from Kenya, it reminded Milton of his native country. “Seeing the rural community that had no running water and no access to health care, I thought right off the bat it’s very similar to Kenya. I felt at home with the poverty,” he says.

Dr. William Young, an Associate Professor Emeritus at Dartmouth Medical School, met Milton on this trip. “Milton felt very much at home in that setting with the tropical weather, the lack of water, the outhouses, the farming lifestyle and general poverty. He thrived in that setting while the rest of us struggled,” Young recalls. “During the siesta time we all collapsed on our hammocks, but Milton went out into the fields with the local kids and played soccer.”

In the rural Nicaraguan village, Milton realized maybe his father’s dream could really become a reality. “I thought to myself,” Milton recalls, “yes, if we can do it in Nicaragua, then what would stop us from doing the same thing in Kenya?”

He started talking with his father and younger brother about the idea.

But the unstable political situation at the time in Kenya put a damper on plans to start anything right away. It wasn’t until three years later when Milton enrolled in medical school at Vanderbilt University that things starting falling into place. Milton found out Vanderbilt gave students funding to complete a project. “And I thought to myself, here’s another opportunity. I’ve been waiting two years, and now is the perfect time to do it. I called my dad and said ‘here it is, finally. Ask the villagers how much it costs to build a clinic,’” says Milton. He put Fred in charge of fundraising.

In his brother’s footsteps

Fred had followed his brother to Dartmouth. When Milton approached him about fundraising, Fred was finishing up his senior year and studying for the MCAT. He was hesitant at first. The idea of raising thousands of dollars was a little bit daunting. “I’m the shy one. But sometimes you just follow the big brother’s recommendation,” Fred tells Diverse.

So Fred starting talking to everyone he knew: friends, professors, mentors and his soccer coach. One friend suggested Fred speak at a Christian organization’s conference and ask the attendees to donate. “My first thought was, I don’t want to go there. But then I thought let’s see what God has in store for us,” says Fred. “I gave a five-minute presentation … and at the end of the conference $9,000 was donated to build the clinic. What a miracle. I thought to myself, this is in just a weekend. God is doing something great, we already raised $9,000. If Milton gave me the goal to raise $25,000, I thought, yes, maybe I can meet it.”

As it would turn out they would need much more money than that.

When he first heard how much Fred had raised, Milton thought his little brother was definitely joking. “It was surreal. But on a more important level for us, it was the first time, for real, that we realized we could actually build the clinic,” Milton says. “Nicaragua was realizing it could be done, but getting money from this conference was realizing it would be done.”

But life was far from easy for the two brothers. The year before their mother died of AIDS. Now their father fell gravely ill from the same disease and was taken to a hospital 40 miles away from the village of Lwala. Both Milton and Fred were working part-time jobs to send money home for their father’s treatment.

Their father died in May 5, 2005.

Yet, just as their community in Lwala had helped Milton go to the United States, the Hanover community of 11,000 in western New Hampshire came together after a local newspaper published a story about the brothers and their project.

Two young siblings Fred had coached in soccer read the story. “They emptied their piggy banks and put the money in an envelope and wrote ‘we hope this money will help to build the clinic,’” recalls Fred. “I just cried. I was so touched. Here we were; we had lost both of our parents. It’s not how we thought things would turn out. We were discouraged. But to get this letter from this kid, I thought, what a blessing. If little kids were doing all they could in their power to help us build the clinic, it became apparent that this really was going to happen.”

Meanwhile, students at a local middle school held fundraisers for the clinic. A sorority and fraternity at the college got together and formed an undergraduate organization and raised $25,000. And the brothers flew home to Kenya to start building the clinic.

A chance meeting led to more help.

A father’s dream becomes reality, and more

Back in Kenya the brothers came in contact with women involved with a nonprofit organization which helped secure a grant for the clinic. She also introduced TV producer Barry Simmons to the brothers. When he heard their story, Simmons quit his job and started to work on a documentary about the brothers and their clinic. Screenings of the documentary “Sons of Lwala” in universities across the country raised even more money for the clinic as more people learned about the Ochieng’ brothers’ story. Now students at the University of Texas at Austin are in the process of forming an organization to support the clinic.

And last month ABC featured the brothers as its “Persons of the week,” around the same time that the Erastus Ochieng’ Lwala Community Memorial Health Clinic — named after the brothers’ father — reached the milestone of serving 30,000 patients since its inception in 2007.

The clinic is currently adding another section for HIV patients, and a maternity wing will soon open. No one is turned away because they lack money to pay for care; 85 percent of the clinic’s patients receive treatment free of charge, according to Milton.

But the brothers’ focus goes beyond providing access to health care. Milton and Fred founded Hanover-based Lwala Community Alliance (LCA) to help support other community and development projects in their native village. Young, the Dartmouth professor Milton met in Nicaragua, now serves as executive director of the organization. So far LCA has sponsored 23 Kenyan children to attend high school, which is not free.

The desire to give

It’s been more than three years since Fred and Milton left Dartmouth, but they are still very much part of the campus community. “People all across campus know them and are keeping tabs on them now,” says Dr. Andrew Friedland, chair of the environmental studies program at Dartmouth.

“You can walk into the chemistry department and see a clipping of them from a local newspaper story,” adds Friedland, who taught the brothers. “Their presence is all over campus and all over the town … it’s been invigorating and uplifting and that’s the bottom line.”

In the end their desire to give back to the community that gave so much to them kept Milton and Fred going during the hardest times. “We wanted to do it [build the clinic] for the sake of our father’s legacy and for the sake of other people in the village,” says Milton. “In particular I thought of our youngest brother who was 11 years old at the time our father died. I was thinking if he was not able to spend his teenage years with his parents, and many others in the village who had already lost parents or were losing parents soon, then we need to really do something.”

These days Milton, now 28, spends his time completing his residency in internal medicine at Washington University’s Barnes Jewish Hospital in St. Louis. Fred, 26, is a third year medical student at Vanderbilt. In their spare time they fundraise for LCA.

The brothers hope to expand the work they’ve done in Lwala to other villages. “If anything, we’re just getting started,” Milton says. “The fact we built a clinic and sponsored 23 kids for high school is no reason to sit back, lay back on the beach and chill out.”

On the Web:

For more information on the Lwala Community Alliance, click here

To see the official Web site for “Sons of Lwala” documentary, click here

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