“OOOOHhhh!” the audience of high school students gasped as one when the emaciated image of Joseph, a poor Haitian stricken with both AIDS and tuberculosis, flashed onto the screen at Cambridge Rindge & Latin Friday morning (Oct. 20).
Joseph looked awful, to put it mildly. Tuberculosis, one of the main opportunistic diseases associated with AIDS’ destruction of the immune system, had taken the meat off his bones, leaving a man who was barely a skin-covered skeleton – ribs, collarbone, and hip bones protruding.
A moment later, the audience broke into spontaneous applause as another slide of Joseph, taken six months later, showed a smiling, handsome young man. He was thin, but muscled under his skin, almost unrecognizable as the person from the earlier image.
The point of the talk Friday to Cambridge Rindge & Latin students was encapsulated in those two images: You can make a difference in a world that needs people to make a difference.
“If we’re ever going to build a movement – a rights movement – we have to reach out to younger people,” Paul Farmer, founder of the nonprofit Partners in Health, said later. “To me, this is a core audience for our message.”
Farmer, also the Maude and Lillian Presley Professor of Social Medicine at Harvard Medical School, was at Cambridge Rindge & Latin with Pulitzer Prize-winning author Tracy Kidder to kick off a day of appearances across Cambridge in celebration of Cambridge Reads.
Cambridge Reads is a townwide book club sponsored by the Cambridge Public Library. It has picked “Mountains Beyond Mountains,” by Kidder, as its latest selection. The book details Farmer’s founding of Partners In Health to provide health care in rural Haiti, one of the world’s poorest areas.
Gail Willett, the library’s program coordinator, said the idea of Cambridge Reads is to bring people together and spark conversation around a single book. In addition to suggesting a book for town residents to read, the program also sponsors events related to the book, such as the Cambridge Rindge & Latin appearance by Farmer. It is the program’s fourth year.
Though they’ve had enthusiastic audiences for events surrounding other books, Willett said the response of town readers to “Mountains Beyond Mountains” has been the biggest so far, with an event scheduled for Friday night (Oct. 20) at Sanders Theatre sold out well in advance.
“This is our largest event ever,” Willett said. “It’s encouraging people to read.”
Farmer and Kidder appeared in Cambridge Rindge & Latin’s auditorium before an audience of several hundred students, teachers, and administrators Friday morning.
Kidder, whose book was published in 2003, opened the event by providing a broad outline of Farmer’s work. Farmer, he said, founded Partners In Health with some friends in 1987 in one of the poorest parts of Haiti, one of the world’s poorest countries. Since then, Partners In Health has expanded rapidly, from a clinic to a medical system with eight hospitals and clinics that work beyond the boundaries of medicine – feeding people, educating them, and providing housing and clean water supplies.
Partners In Health directly serves some 1.3 million people in Haiti, providing mostly free care to the poor, largely rural farmers. It has, in recent years, expanded to Peru, Mexico, Boston, Russia, and Rwanda, Kidder said.
Farmer’s message to the high schoolers was a simple one: you are the future and we need you to renew our work. Or as he said more simply: “We’re here to recruit.”
Farmer urged the teens to become active. Though their studies keep them from traveling to far-flung locations, Farmer said there is plenty of work to do close to home.
“Don’t forget there’s all sorts of work you can do nearby,” Farmer said.
Haitian students welcomed Farmer and Kidder with a Haitian dance, and a student group presented Farmer with a check to support Partners In Health, the proceeds of a recent fundraiser.
Chris Saheed, the school’s principal, said the event was open to students whose teachers were interested in attending. He said it fits well with the school’s message that high school is not just about academics and activities, but about social consciousness as well.
“We have been focusing on community service because it’s such an important part of an overall education,” Saheed said.
In response to students’ questions, Kidder said his journeys with Farmer showed him a side of the world he hadn’t seen before, from the poorest of the poor to tuberculosis wards in Russian prisons.
“I think he introduced me to more reasons for despair, yet it was the most exhilarating experience of my life,” Kidder said. “This small group of people was doing something about it.”
As for Farmer, his own biggest influence was the island nation, mired in poverty, where he’s focused most of his energies.
“If I had to choose one thing that influenced me in a positive way, it was Haiti,” Farmer said. “Haiti was my best teacher.”