May 19, 2011 |

Doctor finds call at African orphanage

Dr. Greg Higgins first saw Eliza begging on a street corner. With a few inquiries he learned she was deaf and had been abandoned by family. "I have this innate thing that tweaks me all the time," Higgins explained. "When I see a situation or someone that is suffering, I am moved to do something about it." 

On that day this meant taking Eliza, age 11, to the local police in Moshi, Tanzania and securing paperwork to bring her back to the Kilimanjaro Orphanage Centre, a project he has devoted his time, savings, and heart to for the last three years.

On other days, Higgins is buying and distributing mosquito netting, installing toilets, or lecturing corrupt immigration officers. It’s unrelenting work, but Higgins considers the rewards to be outstanding. "(Eliza) figured it out right away. As soon as she got on the grounds (of the orphanage) you could see her looking around and thinking: other kids, toys, food. This was heaven to her."

Higgins first encountered the Kilimanjaro Children’s Foundation in 2008. An avid climber, he joined the Haines Venturer Scouts scaling Mount Kilimanjaro. He was traveling in Africa, holding medical clinics in Kenya and Sudan as a volunteer with a group called Helping Hands Medical Missions, a Catholic nonprofit that provides medical aid in developing countries.

The Scouts’ guide on the mountain was Edward Lazaro, the founder and director of the Kilimanjaro Children’s Foundation. Higgins said he quickly realized Lazaro, locally known as "Teacher," was someone special.

Higgins had been volunteering in Africa with Helping Hands for two years. The mission’s intent was to set up permanent clinics where volunteer doctors, like Higgins, would work with local doctors. But Higgins found himself stymied in this mission by what he calls the "Africa Dilemma." "All these promises are made, but nobody delivers."

"It (became) clear to me that if you are going to change the future, you are not going to do it sitting down with a bunch of bureaucrats making a plan. If you are going to really make an impact, you have to accept that it has to be done small. You have to commit life by life. It is a struggle in the trenches. Once you accept that principle, then you find your trench and go for it."

When Higgins met Lazaro and saw his work at the Kilimanjaro Children’s Foundation, "The bells and whistles went off. This is what I was looking for...There are only so many people like Teacher. When I come across one, I do everything in my power to help them."

At the time of Higgins’ first visit, the children’s foundation was a preschool. Soon after, Lazaro founded the Kilimanjaro Orphanage Centre (www.kiliorphanage.com). At first, the orphanage was just a small dormitory attached to a preschool, crammed with bunks, sharing with the preschool an open air kitchen and a single pit toilet.

Higgins kept returning to Tanzania, volunteering at the orphanage, becoming more involved. In early 2010, he returned to Haines, put his household goods into storage and went back to Africa, full time. "I am so focused (on the orphanage,) the living conditions are just peripheral. I don’t even think about Africa per se. It could be anywhere. It’s just that I met these kids, and there is a need, and a fit. These kids give me more than I will ever give them."

Through the joint efforts of Lazaro and Higgins, the orphanage has continued to evolve. "Teacher has good big ideas, but his little ideas aren’t so good. The little ideas are how do we make things happen. I am a good, little-idea guy."

Together, Higgins and Lazaro arranged to have the foundation purchase the property that the orphanage and school were renting, as well as the next door lot. They built an indoor kitchen and installed a rack of porcelain toilets. "When a need would arise...the money would appear," said Higgins. "This happened over and over."

Sometimes tourists would visit the foundation and come back with substantial donations. A pair of tourists from Liechtenstein donated $18,000 for the property purchase.

Occasionally Higgins still travels throughout Africa, running medical clinics for Helping Hands. He feels that this provides him with a break from his intense emotional involvement with the orphanage. This past year they lost a 16-year-old boy to a heart problem. Higgins had arranged to send the boy to India for surgery, which was successful, but following his return to Tanzania, the boy contracted malaria and died of sepsis.

Higgins, 63, describes himself as a "reluctant physician." "When you go through the process (of becoming a doctor) you realize it is not what you think it is. You have these grand ideas of helping people and doing something meaningful, but a lot of what you are dealing with is taking care of self-chosen illnesses."

After years working as an emergency room specialist in Alaska and Colorado, he quit medicine for good, he thought, in 2003. For the next two years he ran a cat sanctuary, a culmination of a longtime association with the Humane Society.

"I learned a lot from cats. It was healing for me, because I was pretty burned out on people. Being an E.R. physician, you see the worst of the worst over and over again. Working with cats, you realize the mistakes that animals and people make are not deliberate, (and) you start to be more forgiving. For me this reopened the door to what brought me to medicine in the first place: compassion. I had to find my compassion again."

Higgins came to Haines for the first time in July 2006, for an Alsek River raft trip after wrapping up his work with the cat sanctuary. He was "wandering" and "looking for a new direction." He liked the people and community here so much, he decided to spend the winter, then ended up staying the next three years.

He woke up one day wanting to return to medicine.

Now, Higgins says he has two homes: Haines and the orphanage. In hopes of bringing the two together, he’s dreaming of an exchange program where children from the orphanage would visit Haines and live with host families.

Haines residents have helped build a bond between the Kilimanjaro Children’s Foundation, the orphanage and the Chilkat Valley. Deb Kemp, who was on the trip with the Venturer Scouts in 2008, helped put together a non-profit corporation, The Fund for Kilimanjaro Orphanage, whose goal is to organize donations and fund-raisers.

She admires Higgins’ determination. "Greg has a way of setting goals and going straight at them and accomplishing them. He doesn’t let anything slow him down. He doesn’t get discouraged. He is inspirational."

Local wildlife biologist Jamie King recently returned from two months in Tanzania, where he volunteered at the orphanage. King raised money from family and friends and secured a grant from the web-based charity to buy and install a solar hot water heater.

"When you get there and you see the children with Teacher and Greg, you see that they are being given a wonderful life," King said. "The children are incredibly happy. These kids are the future of Tanzania: they have the best shot at succeeding, at completing secondary school, at advancing and moving up and out of the desperate situation that they are in now, into a situation where they can contribute back to their society."

"(This trip) motivated me to get more involved, not only with the orphanage, but with other organizations. It was inspiring, to say the least... I would highly recommend for anyone to go down there and spend some time with the kids and with Greg."

Higgins doesn’t focus on direct fundraising for the orphanage. "What I want people to do is be involved in the world, in their lives... Find that thing that you think you should be doing. And, by God, pursue it. The world would be a different place if everyone did that."