Imagination can change the world, public health expert tells Greens Farms students
What do some of the world's most serious problems and a big, friendly giant have in common?
Quite a lot, if you ask Ophelia Dahl. She is the co-founder and director of Partners in Health, a global public health organization, and also the daughter of author Roald Dahl, famous for children's classics such as "The BFG" and "James and the Giant Peach."
Dahl spoke Wednesday at Greens Farms Academy in Westport to inaugurate the school's new World Perspectives Program, which is designed to give students a grounding in the global importance of issues such as health, climate and population. The program will also give students the chance to travel on service trips to places like Senegal and the Bahamas.
"All of your problems can be solved with imagination," Dahl told the more than 600 students gathered in the school's gymnasium.
She recalled how as a child she once turned to her father for help with math. Roald Dahl then introduced her to someone who would become one of his most famous creations, The BFG or The Big Friendly Giant. This character, he told her, would give her a dream power that would help her excel at math.
From that point on, she said, "I knew I had a recipe for the rest of my life for any problems that I had."
Years later, Dahl would use her capacity for innovation to help start a community-based health initiative in rural Haiti called Partners in Health.
But even for someone raised to think openly, Dahl admitted that she experienced culture shock when she first arrived there.
Haiti was "startling ... it challenged everything I thought I knew about the order of things," she said.
After graduating from Wellesley College, Dahl continued with her work in Haiti, and in 1987, she helped found Partners in Health as a nonprofit.
Since then, Partners in Health has expanded to several other nations such as Peru, Russia and Rwanda. Some of its signature services include HIV/AIDS treatment, malnutrition programs and prenatal care.
Dahl also discussed the devastating impact of last January's massive earthquake in Haiti.
"It was absolutely unrecognizable," she said of Port-au-Prince, the impoverished nation's capital. "None of the buildings that I had visited in recent memory remained."
But Partners in Health was able to respond effectively in the aftermath of the catastrophe, Dahl said, because it was already established in Haitian communities.
For Greens Farms students, Dahl said that it was imperative that they use their education and inventiveness to tackle other disasters such as the global HIV/AIDS epidemic.
"Imagination will allow us to see the connections between our lives and the rest of the world," she said.
Students reacted enthusiastically to Dahl's speech and were optimistic about the prospects of the World Perspectives Program.
"I would definitely take advantage of these courses if I were a sophomore or junior," said Greens Farms senior and Fairfield resident Mikey Hintsa.
Alison Hutchison, a fellow senior from Westport, also praised the international focus of the school's curriculum.
"There's a big emphasis on globalization, and not only learning about it, but taking part in it," she said.
Greens Farms Director of Global Studies Jason Cummings said the interest of students like Hintsa and Hutchison was a driving force behind the new program. Students have even approached him, he said, about starting a microfinance club and getting involved with Amnesty International.
"It's something the kids have been itching for," Cummings said of the World Perspectives Program. "They're excited about it and really looking forward to it."