Campus & Community

Teacher, doctor, entrepreneur, fighter

6 min read

Julie Herlihy rebuilds lives in Africa

In her junior year at Brown University, Julie Herlihy volunteered to teach children in a remote part of Africa. But when she got to Zimbabwe, no one wanted her. Following an orientation session, the person who was to take her to her assigned village never showed up.

One of the program officials promised her that she could go to his village. But the village headman said, “No.” He didn’t want any muzungus (white people) in his village. After pleas and promises from the official, the headman, who was 95 years old, agreed and even invited Herlihy to stay with his family.

Despite primitive living conditions and language barriers, Herlihy began teaching biology to children, some of whom got up at dawn and walked miles to the school. One afternoon, she was called to the local clinic where a woman was sickened with a fever. The nurse asked for her help.

“There I was, a 20-year-old college junior teaching things like photosynthesis,” she recalled. “I had no idea what to do.”

“Why did you come here, if you can’t help?” the nurse demanded.

“I really wanted to help,” Herlihy says, “so I volunteered to work in the clinic every day after classes. On the first day she handed me a mop.”

Herlihy worked her way up to stacking medicines on shelves then, finally, to assisting with births, giving injections to babies, and counseling AIDS patients.

By the time she was ready to leave, the headman directed a ceremony at which Herlihy was given the title of sisi, or “sister.” That made her an honorary member of the headman’s family of 14 children and more than 100 grandchildren.

Sister to the Lost Boys

Herlihy grew up in Duxbury, Mass., wanting to be a teacher and social worker. In high school, she advocated education to prevent AIDS and campaigned to make condoms available to students. At Brown University, she helped design a program to boost the academic skills of underprivileged high school students in the Providence, R.I., area.

After college, Herlihy and some friends went on a road trip to California. She ran out of money in San Diego and decided to stay. While working as a waitress, she learned about Project Concern International, an agency that supports programs for poor and underserved people. She convinced them to take her on as an unpaid intern. Her assignment involved assisting refugees from East Africa to overcome linguistic and cultural barriers in the United States and to navigate their way through federal and state health-care systems. Among their most frequently asked questions was, “What’s insurance?”

The people Herlihy helped included young males, known as the Lost Boys, who had been taken from their families in Sudan. Some of the Sudanese adults already settled in the San Diego area had come from the same villages as these boys. “It was so neat to see this fractured community unite with each other,” Herlihy says.

Quilting a solution

While working for Project Concern, she and a friend proposed a program to train community health workers in Africa to care for children orphaned by AIDS. “Project Concern liked the idea, but said they couldn’t pay us and we’d have to raise money for expenses by ourselves,” Herlihy notes. “Not being paid was nothing new, but we had to cold-call drug companies and nongovernmental agencies to obtain funds.”

Herlihy and her friend raised the money and traveled to Zambia where, this time, the welcome was warmer. They joined up with an organization known as Bwafwano (Helping One Another), run by a dynamic Zambian woman named Beatrice Chola. Together, they recruited 15 women to care for orphans.

However, it soon became evident that the women had unmet basic needs themselves. “Some of them who had lost husbands to AIDS sold their bodies just to get what they needed to feed and care for their own families,” Herlihy recalls. There was no money for the nutrition, health, and AIDS prevention steps they were being taught to take.

A decision was made to form a women’s cooperative. It would make quilts from local fabrics decorated with handprints from the children of families struggling with AIDS. The quilts would be brought to the United States for sale or sold to employees of nongovernmental agencies visiting the cooperative.

The plan worked. The quilts made enough money to build a second classroom for the orphans and to purchase enough medicines to treat the kids for a year.

AIDS, orphans, and business

By 2002, at age 25, it was time to move on. Herlihy entered medical school at the University of Massachusetts, Worcester. Three years later, she enrolled in the master’s of public health/M.D. program at the Harvard School of Public Health. “I wanted to get closer to the reason I was in medical school, to do public service,” she explains.

In the summer of 2003, Herlihy returned to Zambia. The quilts had helped the orphans but not the women volunteers. They needed to learn how to run businesses to support their own families.

Herlihy modified a curriculum she had obtained from the International Labor Organization to teach illiterate women how to start and run a business. “We used fake money and set up a fake bank,” she explains. “We taught them about getting loans, paying interest, competition, and market niches by role playing. Then we got older orphans from the school to assist with keeping records.”

Herlihy herself provided the first loan. She gave them the expense money she had raised and sponged food and shelter from friends. During the past three years, 255 women in the cooperative have received loans from several private foundations and from beaded ribbons that Herlihy sold at the University of Massachusetts and Harvard. Herlihy estimates that she has raised between $60,000 and $70,000.

That’s something satisfying to think about as she attends the Commencement ceremony on June 8. Then Herlihy will return to the University of Massachusetts to finish her last year of medical school. She’s going to be a pediatrician.

That would be a full agenda for anyone. But Herlihy has started another project. She has begun working with the Polus Center, a nonprofit organization in Massachusetts, to help women in Zambia disabled by AIDS and tuberculosis to help themselves.