ChangeMakers: Erin Larsen-Cooper and VillageReach use business enterprise to promote public health

“Changemakers” is our series exploring how young people, connected and globally aware, are working to change the world. If you know a young person (think “Millennial” or “Gen Y”) committed to change, global health and the fight against poverty, please send the person’s name, short bio and contact info to Jake Ellison at jellison@kplu.org.

By Lisa Stiffler, special correspondent

Erin Larsen Cooper

Erin Larsen-Cooper, 29, is a program associate with VillageReach, and a graduate of the University of Washington and Western Washington University.

In wealthy countries, it’s no problem for an organization to provide a single, narrowly defined service. In a poor community, it won’t always work to focus on singular goal, ignoring the existing challenges that can doom even the most well-intentioned projects.

Take vaccinations.

For the life-saving treatments to work, there needs to be adequate refrigeration during storage and delivery. So when Seattle-based VillageReach teamed up with Mozambique’s Ministry of Health to expand access to vaccines in the country, the non-profit organization realized it needed to help improve refrigeration as well.

But instead of simply handing out the propane needed to power the refrigerators used to chill the vaccines, Seattle-based VillageReach first supported the creation of a business called VidaGas. The idea was to create a self-sustaining business that supported the public health program rather than seek funding from NGOs or the strapped local government agencies.

For Erin Larsen-Cooper, this multidisciplinary, coloring-outside-the-lines approach was a big part of the appeal of working at VillageReach. Larsen-Cooper, a recent graduate of the University of Washington, is hopeful that programs like this that are more holistic, that work with existing health programs and employ members of the community that they’re aiming to help, will get us closer to solving some of the problems in global health and poverty.

Erin Larsen Cooper encouraging HIV testing in Uganda

Next month, Larsen-Cooper will move to Malawi to help implement and evaluate another VillageReach pilot project that will create a maternal and children’s health hotline that will provide advice about pregnancy and pediatric care.

Here’s why and how Larsen-Cooper got involved in global health and development:

Q: Why is “global health and the fight against poverty” an important issue for you?

A popular economist has posed two opposing philosophies that can guide policy and behavior: The belief that you’re on your own, versus the notion we’re all in this together. Larsen-Cooper aims to support the latter. “I really want to live in a global community that says we’re in it together.”

Q: What personal experience inspired you? What idea is driving your commitment?

Larsen-Cooper spent a little more than two years as a Peace Corps volunteer in Uganda. She worked with a tiny nonprofit in a rural area doing health outreach that included HIV testing and education, and sponsoring schooling for vulnerable and orphaned children.

When in Uganda “I felt pretty overwhelmed by the poverty in general, not just the health problems. I tried to focus on the things I could do and were working well. The overwhelming need makes things harder, but on the other hand, when there is such need, small things make big differences.”

Q: Do you think your generation is more attuned to global issues such as global health and the fight against poverty?

“We definitely are. With information being so much easier to share across countries and borders, people are more aware of what’s going on outside their community… A lot more people are traveling and studying aboard and experiencing these issues firsthand. Once someone has been somewhere else, they feel more connected to other communities.”

Q: Do you think your generation will make a difference?

“I hope so … I think it’s really a human rights issue. I think every generation becomes more progressive on human rights.”

“It’ll be interesting. Technology, for example, can play a really big role in solving problems. At VillageReach they use technology, but it has to be paired with infrastructure and systems. People are becoming more aware that technology alone isn’t the answer, it’s part of a multidisciplinary approach.”

Q: How did you land a job in this field?

A volunteer gig as a peer health educator at Western Washington University convinced Larsen-Cooper to scrap her plans to earn an English degree and instead pursue public health. After graduating from WWU and volunteering with the Peace Corps, she earned concurrent masters degrees at the University of Washington in social work and public health. Larsen-Cooper was an intern at VillageReach during her last year of graduate school, and recently began working at the organization as an employee.

Q: If you were to advise someone on how to get a job in this field, what would you tell them?

“You just have to go and get experience,” Larsen-Cooper said. That might require volunteer work or an internship. “Sometimes you can convince people to let you do all kinds of things for free before they’ll pay you.”

 

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About Author

Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at]humanosphere.org, follow him on Twitter @tompaulson and/or send a comment below.

  • Jenn

    Great artilce!  Go Erin!