GLENWOOD SPRINGS — As the son of a family doctor and clinical social worker, Chas Salmen always wanted to help others.
The Glenwood Springs native and Rhodes Scholar, whose parents are Glenwood philanthropists Dr. Paul Salmen and Nancy Reinisch, aspired to be a physician caring for those in need.
“Growing up here, I always wanted to be a rural doctor,” he said. “I was motivated to be around the poor and the sick. I feel like I grew up in a community of activists who stepped up to deal with community issues.”
A nonprofit is born
When studying medical anthropology at Oxford University seven years ago, Salmen, 30, began shifting his focus to the plight of those afflicted by HIV and AIDS in western Kenya. What started out as a backpacking trip that was supposed to take Salmen and a friend to South Africa landed the pair in the vicinity of Lake Victoria and Mfangano Island, home to remote fishing villages near the Kenya-Uganda boundary.
“I was amazed by this island. It’s just a very unique place, this tropical, fresh-water island with these amazing little villages,” Salmen said. “At that time, there wasn’t really any electricity. The villagers were very welcoming. We were very touched.”
Salmen, an Oxford and Duke University alum, had experience working as a community mobilizer within the Prevention Department of Academic Model for Prevention and Treatment of HIV/AIDS (AMPATH) in Eldoret, Kenya. After traveling to Mfangano Island, he befriended Adam Sewall, Richard Magerenge, Joel Oguta, and Lauren Friedman who collaborated to co-found the nonprofit Organic Health Response (OHR) that helps the nearly 30,000 people of Suba and Luo descent.
“The HIV prevalence is apparent,” Salmen said. “Over 30 percent of the population is infected with HIV.”
Salmen said the Lake Victoria fishing industry was exploited in the 1980s, causing the region to become what he described as a gold rush.
“That exploitation fueled the epidemic,” Salem said. “Over-fishing in the lake has taken a huge toll, threatening annual rainfall and draining the local economy.”
With poverty, disease and deforestation plaguing the island, the establishment of Organic Health Response has allowed Salmen and his colleagues the chance to provide real-world solutions. Salmen not only worked with people in Lake Victoria to build the community-focused organization, but he also sought help from family and friends in Glenwood Springs.
“It was pretty overwhelming when we started,” he said. “It began as a hyper-local, for-us-by-us project.”
Friends and family pitch in
Salmen’s parents, wife, Jenna Hines, and his brother, Marco, have joined in the cause to help with medical service needs, traveling to the island to help build OHR and establish the Ekialo Kiona Center. The solar-powered community center serves the 30,000 islanders with Internet access, community radio availability and life-saving health services.
“Our idea was to allow free unlimited access to any resident who joined the Ekialo Kiona Club by agreeing to learn his/her HIV status through biannual HIV counseling and testing,” Salmen said. “We built the center over the next three years and constructed the first wind-powered radio station in Africa.”
The EK Club now has 3,000 members and a full-time staff employing 40 locals. Along with efforts from volunteers in Glenwood Springs, OCH has received support from Google, Craigslist, and the universities of California, Minnesota, and Colorado. Salmen said Glenwood supporters such as attorney Bob Noone, who helped charter the nonprofit, and childhood friend and accountant Gus Lundin have been integral to the initiative’s success.
“Without Gus, this wouldn’t be possible,” he said. “He has helped so much, advising on tax information and helping us develop our donation systems to receive money from all over the U.S., as well as a lot of emotional support. We used to ride the school bus together and now he has done pro bono work for us for the past five years.”
Lundin, of Lundin and Lundin CPAs, said he and Salmen lived down the street from each other as kids but didn’t meet until middle school on the school bus. They later ran track together.
“I used to chase him home after school — he was a little younger and smaller than me — and his mom would be waiting at the top of the driveway to save him,” Lundin said. “In a funny twist, that developed into us running track together all through high school and beyond.”
Lundin said the pair’s friendship and mutual respect have kept them close over the years, motivating him to do anything he can to help a friend.
“Chas is such a compassionate and intelligent person. We have always been there for each other and it has created a special bond that I cherish,” Lundin said. “I had no idea what or why I was getting involved with OHR when we started, but Chas believed in it and convinced me to join. Now what motivates me to stay involved and contribute is seeing the impact OHR has made and how it’s helped so many lives. There are so many exciting success stories that have happened as a result of the work being done by OHR and its volunteers here and on Mfangano.”
A team effort
Last week, Lundin joined Salmen at a fundraiser at Treadz in Glenwood Springs that raised more than $8,500. The funds will help improve an emergency boat service that transports patients to medical facilities on the mainland. Salman said the funds provide much-needed relief since there is no hospital or physician on the island and the nearest hospital is three or more hours away on the mainland. The 35-foot emergency boat was a pet project of Glenwood Springs High School teacher Guy Brickell and his students, who made it possible for OHR to fix up the donated boat and train driver Walter Apivo to be on 24-hour call as a First Responder.
“The fundraiser is just another example of how the Glenwood community has been supporting us. I’m really hoping a delegation from Lake Victoria can come here so they can meet everyone who has helped them,” Salmen said. “I always ask that people who donate to OCH from here let us know they’re locals. That way I can share that with people there. It’s fun for me to go to Kenya and to say, ‘This is from a first-grade teacher or this is from one of my mom’s friends. It’s pretty exciting for me to share my hometown with this community in Kenya.”
Lundin also finds inspiration in the Glenwood-Mfangano connection.
“It really has been an organic growth that has been so much fun to watch. From the original idea of building this community center with HIV testing for membership which has grown into all these other components,” he said. “The radio broadcasting, providing Internet and an emergency evacuation boat, just to name a few. It’s been so much fun to watch ideas and opportunities turn into tangible success stories. I’m honored to be a part of it.”