Lonnie Hackett ’14 lives by the motto, “If not us, then who? If not now, then when?”
This philosophy has driven Hackett to do something extraordinary, particularly for a busy college student. In his junior year, Hackett founded Healthy Kids/Brighter Future, a charity dedicated to improving the health of children in Zambia. The organization has already helped thousands of children.
Hackett recently gave a talk to Bowdoin students about how he “turned a funded internship grant [of $5,000] into a nonprofit,” as Associate Director of Career Planning Dighton Spooner puts it. Bowdoin Career Planning offers many summertime grants to help students pursue otherwise unpaid internships or work experiences in the U.S. and around the world.
Hackett, a biochemistry major and National Truman Scholar, first traveled to Lusaka, Zambia, in the summer of 2011 with a Forest Foundation Fellowship. Soon after arriving in the African country, he encountered levels of illness and suffering shocking to him, he said. In Zambia, 1 in 9 children will never live to see their fifth birthday. Many Zambian children suffer from serious, often preventable, illnesses, and they also demonstrate “alarming gaps” in their knowledge about how to protect themselves. The HIV/AIDS epidemic is particularly serious in Zambia, with an estimated 700,000 children orphaned by the disease.
Hackett threw himself into health education for the summer, spreading information to hundreds of students through Zambian community schools about the transmission and prevention of HIV/AIDS and misconceptions around the disease. But, according to Hackett, “there are hundreds of thousands” more children who need this education. He returned to Bowdoin at the end of the summer determined to continue his work in Lusaka.
To accomplish his goal, Hackett in 2012 founded Healthy Kids/Brighter Future, attracting doctors, academics and a lawyer to the board. With help from Harvard Medical School professors, Hackett set up an ambitious nonprofit model in which 100% of donations go directly to funding health projects.
The charity also implements direct treatments through school-based healthcare, providing physical exams, antibiotics and immunizations. It focuses on teacher empowerment, giving educators training on how to teach kids about their health. Due to Hackett’s efforts, almost 15,000 Zambian children now have health education programs in their schools.
This past summer, Hackett received a Thomas Andrew McKinley ’06 Entrepreneur Grant Fund from Bowdoin to work on strengthening the nonprofit. He raised $15,000, which included some of his grant money, to support the health projects and the children in the program.
Now Hackett is trying to raise $60,000 to expand the reach of Healthy Kids/Brighter Future. The program can support a child for just $5, and Hackett says he hopes that pen-pal partnerships between American and Zambian schools will allow the organization to grow. “We are still working on some of the logistics but hope to have the program up and running a couple of months and will start to look for schools who might be interested,” Hackett said.
It’s difficult to understate the impact that health has on the children of Lusaka, Hackett emphasized. Without the obstacle of disease, children can spend more time in school and break the cycle of poverty.