Local humanitarian brings aid to Ethiopia

From left, Monroe resident Gerry Nicholls, King Gezahegn of Ethiopia’s Konso Tribe and Solomon ‘Gandhi’ Desta are working together to improve education and health in Ethiopia.

From left, Monroe resident Gerry Nicholls, King Gezahegn of Ethiopia’s Konso Tribe and Solomon ‘Gandhi’ Desta are working together to improve education and health in Ethiopia.

For Monroe resident Gerry Nicholls and his wife, Christina, the desire to help others does not end with the holiday season — it is a year-round endeavor.

Nicholls and his wife are the founders of Ethiopia’s Daughters — a nonprofit organization dedicated to working with Ethiopian schools and communities to raise the standard of living by providing clean water, medical assistance, educational programs, and infrastructure.

In an interview with The Courier, Nicholls explained that his involvement in Ethiopia — and the subsequent establishment of his nonprofit — began in 2009. Together with a small team of researchers, Nicholls traveled to Ethiopia in search of the rarest bird in the world, the Nechisar Nightjar. The mission was a success and a book related to the team’s work has taken off in recent months, he said. Along the way, however, Nicholls found more than the rare animal he sought — he discovered a community whose quality of life could be improved with his help.

Nicholls’ efforts began with the help of Solomon Desta, the tour guide and translator who had led him on his journey to find the Nechisar Nightjar. Desta was eager to help Nicholls on his mission to aid the people of Ethiopia and the two quickly grew close. Nicholls described Desta as a “modern-day Gandhi,” whose only interest is helping those who struggle around him.

It was the strong connection with Desta that brought on Ethiopia’s Daughters’ first major project. After visiting the school Desta’s two daughters attended to briefly help teach English, Nicholls discovered destitute conditions, he said.

“When I saw what they considered a toilet — 400 kids and 20 beautiful teachers — I said, ‘I’m not doing this. I’m rebuilding this,’” Nicholls said.

True to his word, Nicholls himself carried out the manual labor necessary to upgrade the school’s toilet system. It is his belief that because most nonprofits hire outsiders to do work, they don’t know where to turn if things go wrong, he said.

“They call me ‘Mr. Fix’ in Ethiopia because I fix problems. I don’t hand out money — I don’t like what a lot of nonprofits do,” Nicholls said.

Accordingly, a core component of the concept behind Ethiopia’s Daughters is ensuring that the Ethiopian community plays a part in accomplishing its goals. The organization, Nicholls said, has three rules — ensure that the projects taken on are smart ideas and beneficial to the people of Ethiopia, involve the community in the labor required to complete projects, and ensure that projects are ongoing, so that the people are able to continually reap their benefits without outside help.

Ethiopia’s Daughters works on a small budget and does not actively fund-raise, according to Nicholls, though money still comes in. The organization hopes to collect funding in the near future to train local nurses who can treat the Ethiopian community through injections, birth control and other medical necessities, but generally does not ask for money, he said. If the nonprofit were to grow significantly, it would lose the powerful impact it currently has on the Ethiopian community, he added.

One of the largest endeavors Ethiopia’s Daughters takes on is an annual medical trip to care for thousands of tribespeople. Nicholls himself is a retired registered nurse who worked at Norwalk Hospital for 25 years. Along with ear, nose and throat doctor Robert Weiss, Nicholls teams up with a group of volunteers and local doctors each year to provide free medical care to many Ethiopians. Given that there are more Ethiopian-trained doctors in the city of Chicago than in all of Ethiopia, the medical assistance is greatly needed, Nicholls said.

It was on one such medical trip in 2012 that Nicholls and Weiss formed a bond with a southern tribal king who was known for his honest and humble character. The duo ultimately teamed up with King Gezahegn of the Konso tribe, a “very charismatic” man with a degree in hydrology, Nicholls said.

“[King Gezahegn] is very unusual in that he is a leader who is completely incorruptible,” Nicholls said. “He has no interest in money.”

A visit to the king’s region revealed a remarkable need for improvement in education, water and overall health. Working with Gezahegn, Nicholls has since transformed a Konso school into an income-producing farm by bringing in German-style beehives as well as chickens — two entities whose products yield money that can be used for the purchase of important objects such as books — something the school currently does not have access to, Nicholls said. Aiding this tribe is where Ethiopia’s Daughters is now concentrating its attention, he said.

In January, Nicholls and a team of 10 others, including doctors, nurses and other volunteers, will conduct the annual visit to Ethiopia to offer free medical help. One of the most exciting elements of the trip will be adding a dentist to the mix as well, Nicholls said. With just 80 dentists present in all of Ethiopia — none of whom have ever visited the Konso region — her willingness to perform extractions and treat infections for a large number of tribespeople will be enormously helpful, he said.

Looking to the future of Ethiopia’s Daughters, Nicholls said the nonprofit will focus its efforts on supplying more people with running water and teaching them techniques that will make them more self-sustainable.

For more information, visit ethiopiasdaughters.org.

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