On a mission of mercy and education in West Africa

The news out of West Africa is terrifying.

In April, at least 200 girls were kidnapped from their Nigerian school at the hands of Boko Haram, an Islamic militant group. And along with Nigeria, the West African countries of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone are in the midst of an unprecedented Ebola virus outbreak that has stricken thousands.

Bad news or fear didn’t stop a Snohomish-based foundation and area health professionals from going to West Africa this summer on a mission of mercy, education and goodwill. If you ask two Snohomish men who made the trip, their news out of Togo is good.

“You’re changing somebody’s life, or giving them the tools to change their lives,” said Tomm Stewart, 61, a Snohomish High School math teacher who has also been a longtime administrator in the Snohomish district.

With his 62-year-old brother, John Stewart, who is retired from Verizon after 31 years, the Snohomish teacher is a volunteer with the Foundation for Educational and Entrepreneurial Development with Dignity and Sustainability, or FEED-DS. That’s a long title for a nonprofit they started in 2005, with a different name, to help a college student from Togo.

That student, Ignace Hounwanou, attended Bellevue Community College and earned a bachelor’s degree in nursing from the University of Washington Bothell. A registered nurse, Hounwanou now works at Providence Regional Medical Center Everett’s Colby Campus.

Hounwanou, 41, joined the team that spent July 14-25 in Togo providing health care and training in how to run small businesses. The diverse delegation of 24 included two physicians, including Dr. Jonathan Bishop of Snohomish, a group of nurses from the UW Bothell Nursing and Health Studies program, hearing specialists from Spokane and five people from the University of Oulu in Finland.

For the Stewarts, it wasn’t the first trip to West Africa. They had been to Togo on mission trips with the Laestadian Lutheran Church.

John Stewart, who has been to West Africa five times, met Hounwanou in Togo in 2003. The foundation helped the former chicken farmer attend college in Washington.

“Through our exposure to West Africa, we saw there was great need,” Tomm Stewart said. “It’s one of the poorest countries in the world,” his brother said of Togo.

Back in his homeland this summer, Hounwanou helped teach people about hygiene and the dangers of stagnant water and malaria. He performed screenings for hypertension and diabetes. “In rural areas, some people never had health care,” Hounwanou said.

The Stewarts established the foundation, originally called Educational &Entrepreneurial Foundation for Developing Countries, as a secular nonprofit group, separate from their Christian outreach work. For this summer’s trip, they partnered with the UW Bothell nursing program. Team members paid their own way and donations came from many sources, Tomm Stewart said.

With the teachers from Finland, they presented an entrepreneurial training seminar in Togo’s capital city of Lome. Since 2005, the foundation has supported about a dozen small businesses in Togo with micro loans and grants of $600 to $2,000.

One woman, a seller of toothpicks on the street, was helped in establishing a kiosk selling toothpaste and toothbrushes. Other businesses sell sleeping mats and seeds and grain. “At certain times of year, people don’t have grain. People are starving,” John Stewart said. The nonprofit helped one business owner with a storage shed so grain could be stored.

The health teams helped about 1,300 people from several villages, Kpalime, Atime and Pchekpo. Hearing specialists fit about 100 people with hearing aids. The Stewarts described one woman who was in tears hearing a voice for the first time.

Before the trip, John Stewart was contacted by a mother of a nursing student understandably concerned about the abduction of the Nigerian girls and Ebola. “Her daughter wanted to do something good,” John Stewart said.

“It is scary,” Hounwanou said of the Ebola epidemic. “As a care worker, I had my eyes open.”

Their work was 800 to 1,000 miles from places affected by the virus, Tomm Stewart said. “Naturally, we will check before we go next time,” he said. They hope to return to Togo next summer.

Several fundraisers are in the works, including the sale of a signed Russell Wilson No. 3 Seahawks jersey and football.

“We’re building a bridge between people, and making the world a better place,” Tomm Stewart said. “This has changed our lives. Oftentimes we feel we get more back than we put in.”

Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460; jmuhlstein@heraldnet.com.

Learn more

The Snohomish-based Foundation for Educational and Entrepreneurial Development with Dignity and Sustainability was established in 2005. Information about the foundation and a recent medical mission to Togo is available at www.feedds.org.

Correction, Sept. 9, 2014: Danette Ver Woert is a student in the UW Bothell Master of Nursing program. Her status at the university was misidentified in a photo caption with an earlier version of this story.

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