Global health advocates are trying desperately to get your attention. They worry that statistics have lost their meaning. Who can wrap their mind around 6,500 Africans dying of AIDS every day, anyway? As the director of a global health advocacy firm in Washington told me the other day, "We need a story."
That's when I told her about Milton Ochieng'.
Milton and I met last year in a Nashville coffee shop. Within minutes, the Vanderbilt medical student had pulled out blueprints to the clinic he was building in memory of his father back home in Kenya. By the end of my second cup, I had already decided to leave my job as a television reporter and pursue his story as a documentary.
Milton's earliest claim to fame was that he was the first from his village, Lwala, to board an airplane. But it almost never happened. He had just won a scholarship to Dartmouth College in New Hampshire but couldn't afford the plane ticket. So his parents appealed to neighbors, who sold chickens and cows to come up with the money. At the send-off, a village elder handed Milton a plane ticket with one request: "Just don't forget us."
They needn't have worried. As a senior in college, Milton and his father, Erastus, hatched an idea that would change life in Lwala forever. They began planning a privately run health clinic that would offer round-the-clock medical care to their village.
Erastus had been dreaming of the clinic for years: A high school chemistry teacher, he was Lwala's only physician, though his education in the field of medicine came from a single book he kept in his hut. But Erastus did not live to see the clinic. He died just three weeks before the groundbreaking. It was AIDS, the same disease that had taken Milton's mother and hundreds of others in his community.
With Erastus gone, the village looked to Milton and his younger brother Fred, who had joined Milton at Vanderbilt in medical school. To open the clinic, the brothers would have to raise tens of thousands of dollars, and they would have to figure out how to run it.
Advisers worried that it was a bad time for the brothers to take on the project, but the clinic could not wait. Thirty percent of Lwala is infected with HIV, and there was nowhere for the sick to go for help. The only ambulance was a rusted bicycle with a mattress strapped to the back.
So in spare moments during school, Milton and Fred told their story to anyone who would listen, but it was slow to take hold. Money ran so low that construction on the clinic stopped at one point.
Then came help from the most unexpected places. As word spread on college campuses and the Internet, fundraisers of every variety began happening all over the country, from a 10-year-old's birthday party in New Hampshire to a wine-and-cheese social at Andy Warhol's old apartment in New York City. Donations came in pennies from school children and in larger amounts from Bruce Springsteen. A designer in India even created a "Lwala line" of clothing and put together a fashion show that raised $10,000.
In April, two years after the groundbreaking, Milton and Fred returned to Lwala and dedicated the clinic to their father. Friends and supporters from all over the world sent good wishes.
Lwala has become a global village, thanks to one man's vision and the sons who would not let it die with him. All they had was their story, but where there's a story, there's potential to motivate, inspire and change.
Milton proves that there is an audience out there willing to listen. They're just waiting for someone to capture their imagination.