Josie Hickel is a Chugach shareholder, and she is the President of Chugach Commercial Holdings (CCH). CCH supports Alaska’s oil and gas industry and has operations that span from Hawaii to the Midwest. Her husband Dr. Jack Hickel is a primary care physician who works with the Southcentral Foundation. With Josie leading one of Chugach’s major business lines and Jack working on the Alaska Native Medical Campus, this married couple lead very busy lives, yet the Hickels have found the time to support a community that is literally on the other side of the world. In the following article, Josie describes their involvement in the Alaska Sudan Medical Project (ASMP):
My husband first visited the village of Old Fangak in Sudan in late 2007 at the request of Dr. Jill Seaman. She had been volunteering in the area for 20 years. In the summer, Seaman works as a physician at the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta health system in Bethel, and she spends the rest of her time in Sudan. Jack came back from that trip, and said that in his 16+ years of working in Africa, he had never seen a more dire health crisis. From that point on, his battle cry was: “We have to help!!!”
After my husband’s battle cry went out, I got involved immediately. Our desire was to help these people from this faraway land and try to alleviate some of the suffering they had endured as the result of 40 years of civil war. I had volunteered and served on a number of non-profit boards in Alaska for many years, but this was my first personal experience with working on a project overseas. Clearly, the needs were great, and I was really moved to help and make a difference for these people.
Initially, a small group of committed volunteers, my husband and myself included, came together and worked to set up the ASMP non-profit. Then we began to work on plans while raising funds. Most immediately, Dr. Jill identified the need for a new medical clinic. She had been working out of a very old building that had been constructed in the 1940s. Needless to say, this facility was not in good condition, and it was far too small. We started there with plans to build a new clinic/hospital.
On our first trip to the village in the spring of 2009, we started construction. It was extremely difficult with the logistics being very challenging. Old Fangak is located off a tributary to the Nile River, and the area had not received any supply boats for years. In fact, ours was the first barge to navigate those waters in a decade. Our small team of volunteers arrived by small plane just as the barge full of our donated supplies docked next to the village. Supplies include construction material for the clinic, and drilling and farming equipment.
We got right to work and began work on the medical facility, and we drilled some water wells as there was only one well in the village. Prior to these wells, the village’s primary water source had been the river adjacent to the village, and it was very polluted. In addition, we also introduced some agriculture to the village, planting seeds and showing the local residents how to use farming equipment.
I was really struck by the conditions in the village. The health conditions were terrible. There was a lot of disease, mostly water-born illnesses, and a lot of hunger and malnutrition. Dr. Jill and her team were overwhelmed. While I was there, we saw a lot of sickness and, unfortunately, a lot of deaths, including babies and young children. Sadly, there is a very high rate of infant mortality in Sudan. They have some of the worse health conditions in the world. Despite all, the people remain very humble and resilient, and they take joy in the same things we do—family, holidays, spiritual beliefs.
While there, I helped any way I could. I did manual labor, helped in the clinic and assisted Dr. Jill with administrative tasks. At the time, I felt that my skills were not very well suited to the needs of those we were serving. The backbone of our team was the doctors, nurses, a dentist and the builders. I felt those people had a lot more to offer than I did. Still, it was incredible to witness the situation in Sudan and see our volunteers in action.
That first trip really added context to what I was working for and how I could help. Upon returning to Alaska, I was able to contribute to the ASMP cause in a manner more suited to my skills and aptitude, applying my passion for volunteering, doing the necessary administrative work in the background, helping with fundraisers, writing newsletters and doing the accounting for the organization. I have continued to volunteer with ASMP since the beginning.
I returned to the village in 2013-14 and helped complete the building of the clinic. Because of the ongoing civil war, it took a long time for us to finally finish the building. There have been years when it has been pretty risky to travel to Sudan, and consequently, it can be a struggle to get supplies to the village. Fortunately, we have some very adventurous and persistent Alaskan volunteers who have braved the risks and have gone over every year. Ultimately, over the past 10 years, we built the clinic, drilled about 20 wells and started about 130 gardens. In addition to all of this, we have trained locals to do most of the work, so it is sustainable, and they can continue the work even when we are not there. We are currently raising funds to build a TB Clinic, which is something that is desperately needed.
My most memorable experience in the village was a day when Jack and I decided to take a walk on the outskirts of the village. An elderly woman came and motioned us into a ‘tukol’ – a mud hut with a grass roof, which serve as the traditional homes in the village. Inside was a young woman preparing to give birth. Things were not going well. Everyone knew that Jack was a doctor, and they were desperate for his help. All cultures have their traditions. In Sudan, the elderly women gather and tend to the soon-to-be mothers as they give birth. It was fascinating! I felt like I was in a National Geographic film. We couldn’t understand the language, but through hand gestures and such, we quickly came to understand the situation, and Jack was able to help. The mother ultimately delivered a healthy baby with all of her elders present to celebrate!
A few years ago, unfortunately, the civil war broke out again. We had trained half dozen young men to work for us, and they were being pressured to join the rebel army to fight the government forces. In order to protect them from being recruiting to fight (and the high odds of death), we quickly raised funds to fly them to a refugee camp and put them in school. I personally sponsor one of these young men who is now attending school in Kenya. That has been very rewarding to me personally, as I know an education will give him the ability to help his people in the long term. His father had passed away years before and his mother just died, so now I am also sponsoring his younger brother. We are trying to get him a Visa, too, so he can join his brother in Kenya. It’s incredibly hard for these young kids, many of whom, like the two brothers, are left without parents due to the constant warfare and disease.
I think that everyone is called to help people in different ways, and at different times in their life. I encourage people to listen to their hearts and do what they can to help others, whether it’s in your own neighborhood or around the world. We are all connected in some way. It really is the act of giving, of caring for another, of thinking about those less fortunate and doing something to help that elevates us as individuals and a society. In South Sudan, the needs are great. Whenever possible, I encourage people to donate to our project. These donations truly save lives. Every donation literally translates into lifesaving medicine, clean water and food. Assuring that those who are less fortunate have all the basics needed to survive is a reward that cannot be measured.
We always welcome the opportunity to discuss the work of the Alaska Sudan Medical Project. To learn more about our organization, to get our contact information or make a donation, go to: www.alaskasudan.org. Thank you.
Following video can be found our Facebook page where you’ll find amazing posts, photos and other media that show how donations make a difference and save lives: