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Americares President and CEO Michael J. Nyenhuis leads a health-focused relief and development organization that saves lives and improves health for people affected by poverty or disaster.
We are in the season of lights. The Jewish Festival of Lights, Hanukkah, has just passed. Christians are preparing to celebrate the birth of the one they call the Light of the World. The secular holiday season is upon us with twinkling lights on Christmas trees, draped from eaves and filling store windows.
We need lights this time of year. As the winter solstice approaches, the days shorten and nights grow longer. I’m an early morning runner, and I’m now starting my run in the dark and finishing it that way, too.
We need light in other ways: Light breaks through the darkness, which there is so much of in the world today. One of the disadvantages of my role leading a global humanitarian organization is that I can’t turn away from the world’s darkness. It confronts me every day as my team wrestles with how to help people suffering through war in Yemen and those fleeing Syria, Venezuela and Central America; and how we can confront the Ebola outbreak brewing in the Democratic Republic of the Congo; health crises in the world’s largest slums, like those in Mumbai, India; the opioid crisis here in the U.S. and on and on.
At times, it does seem very dark out there. Too dark, for some.
I remember taking a prospective donor to visit a difficult place in South America a number of years ago. At the end of the visit he felt paralyzed. He saw too much need, too much struggle. “How can you even make a dent in it?” was his question. He walked away and never became the supporter I had hoped.
Obviously, that wasn’t the reaction I was expecting. What I wanted this man to see in the midst of the darkness was the light — how our programs were improving health for children and families, the inspiring community health workers making a difference against the odds, kids in school because they were healthy, parents at work because they were, too. I wanted him to meet people rising above their circumstances. In a small village, he met the mother of a young girl who contracted strep throat — a condition that can be very serious if not treated — and is rarely treated in such places. This youngster, however, was treated successfully by a health worker my organization had trained, in a small health post we supported with the required antibiotics.
I’ve been asked many times how I keep a generally optimistic outlook when my job puts me face-to-face every day with so much trauma. How? I focus on the light.
I am doing that now. My religious tradition draws me to the light. My love of the holidays draws me to the holiday lights. And, when I see the winter solstice coming, bringing the darkest day of the year, I am drawn instead to the day after, when the light begins its return. Every day for months, until June, we will have a little more light. That’s worth celebrating.
Here’s to the light! Happy Holidays!