The efforts of a Des Moines man, a nonprofit group and a West Des Moines church combined last week to send 300,000 high-calorie, vitamin-filled meals to Ebola patients fighting for their lives in recovery centers in the Republic of Liberia.
The shipment has left Des Moines, but another 400,000 meals will be shipped via sea freight once a donor is found to pay for the shipping costs. Altogether, the meals hopefully will feed 1,000 patients for six months.
Walter Gwenigale Jr., 42, traveled to Liberia this summer to see his father, Walter Sr., 79, who is a doctor and the minister of health in Liberia. Gwenigale Jr.’s father is a native of Liberia, but wrapped up his medical training in the U.S. in 1972, then returned to his homeland with his wife, Carmen, also a medical professional. Together, they have spent decades as Christian health workers.
Gwenigale Jr. also works in the health field as equal opportunity manager at the Veterans Medical Center in Des Moines, but what he saw in Africa this summer at the Ebola recovery centers shook him to the core.
“The situation is indescribable,” he said. “The destructive nature of Ebola cannot be put into words, especially in a country that was just beginning to rebuild its health care infrastructure after a 14-year civil war.”
He saw relief efforts and treatments and called the situation devastating. He knew he would have to help in some way because “with the right amount of international support, they can overcome this,” he said.
When a patient is hospitalized in Liberia for anything other than Ebola, their meals are provided by local family members. But with the Ebola quarantine in place, families cannot get food to their loved ones. Instead, the patients must rely on the hospital and government funding to provide sources of food, and both are in dire condition.
“The patients are isolated and the government’s funds are very limited to get the food in to the patients,” Gwenigale said. “So I sought the help of Outreach Inc. here in Iowa, (which) is very active in Africa in providing meals to malnourished and impoverished people. I knew they could help.”
Rick McNary, vice president of strategic partnerships for Outreach Inc., said the non-profit group strives to engage volunteers across America in meal-packaging events. For example, this past week, the Miami Dolphins football team and the Miami community packaged 1 million rice and beans meals to be distributed at food pantries. Several John Deere plant employees across the U.S. have packaged 1 million mac and cheese meals to be retained at their local food banks. Those meals were created by Iowa State University food science researchers.
The meals headed to Liberia are made of rice, soy protein, vegetables and 21 vitamins targeted to build the immune system of malnourished people.
“Walter approached us and I instantly said, ‘Let’s do this.’ We do a lot of work in Africa and have seen people die of starvation there,” McNary said. “But the critical component for us is the ability to get the meals into a port and safely distributed.”
Because Gwenigale has connections via his father, Outreach Inc. was comfortable the meals will arrive safely and be distributed to the targeted patients.
And Gwenigale had another important source to aid in the project: the financial backing of his church to help pay for the shipping.
Lutheran Church of Hope stepped in and with Global Health Ministries paid and arranged for the shipping of the container.
The project arose so quickly there wasn’t a volunteer group available to package meals, so McNary tapped into an existing supply of 300,000 ready-made meals assembled by groups out of Minnesota and Missouri.
But now another 400,000 meals remain to be shipped overseas; Gwenigale just needs a donor to pay for the shipping.
“When you have Ebola, you lose a lot of your body’s nutrients and these meals are a great way to replace those,” he said.
But while his mission is helping to feed the Ebola patients, Gwenigale also frets about his father’s overall wellbeing and that of others in Liberia who are facing starvation because of the outbreak.
As the situation worsens, the cost of food on the local market increases, he said, so poor people cannot afford to eat.
He said his father is “in the thick of it right now, but he’s always felt that this is what he was called to do, to provide care to those in need and who are impoverished, particularly in Liberia, because he is committed to enriching the lives of his own people.
“Being there myself and hearing stories of how devastating it is, not just for those who are sick with Ebola, but those struggling with hunger because of the epidemic, I knew I had to help,” Gwenigale said.