It’s been nearly a decade since I went to La Paz, Bolivia, jumped on a mountain bike, and rode from the tip of the Andes to the depths of the Amazon alongside Santa Barbara Middle School students to raise awareness and funding for the nascent Rio Beni Health Foundation. One of the more audacious and adventurous fundraising missions ever, the 250-or-so-mile, weeklong ride over dirt roads through previously un-pedaled country ended in the Amazonian hub of Rurrenabaque, where the project ran a clinic and reached out to the Beni’s deepest villages, offering both primary care and health education to people everyone else seemed to have forgotten.
Now, 12 years since it was officially founded by the late Dr. Lou Netzer — the famed Santa Ynez Valley doctor/baby deliverer whose 2002 passing inspired the bike trip — the Rio Beni Health Foundation is more integral than ever: Its low-cost clinic, which now features a laboratory, is open five days per week; the 4X4 and canoe trips now reach more than 60 villages in an area that’s three times the size of Santa Barbara County, sometimes requiring a week of straight travel; and this past spring, when the region was hit by 30-year floods, the World Food Programme and Pan-American Health Organization went directly to the foundation for help in distributing resources and medicines to fight the spread of dengue fever and other diseases. “When you have the UN agencies coming and asking us for help, it’s an honor,” explained the foundation’s cofounder and executive director Christopher Brady, a Santa Barbara native whose globe-trotting career in charitable missions has included stints in Africa and Indonesia. “But that took a lot of our annual budget to concentrate on that.”
So, as is often the less glamorous role of nonprofit directors, Brady is appealing to the Santa Barbara community for help to cover the funding gap caused by the flood relief efforts and ensure that the Rio Beni Health Foundation continues to serve the villagers who have been all but abandoned by the government of Bolivia, the second poorest country in Latin America. As to why your money should be directed toward Bolivians you’ve never met versus more local problems, there’s an interesting answer: The Rio Beni Health Foundation is becoming a global model of how to build effective organizations that are sustainable, locally connected and controlled, and able to last into the long term, beyond when visionaries such as Brady and Netzer fade away.
“My philosophy throughout my career has been slow, long-term training of local staff, working with government organizations and the local hospitals, and trying to have something that augments the government work — not just to come down for two years with a large budget from big donors and then leave,” explained Brady, who has witnessed a few of those latter, less lasting efforts. “Right now, people realize that we’ve been here 12 years. We didn’t start really huge — we’re still not really huge — but we’re growing.”
Brady continues to lead a group of Santa Barbara Middle School students on an annual fundraising expedition — though they ditched the bikes in favor of hiking boots after our inaugural 2003 mission — that will celebrate its 10th anniversary in July 2012. To learn more about and support the Rio Beni Health Foundation, see netzerbrady.org.