An international relief agency housed at the Brethren Service Center in New Windsor is implementing a $40 million federal grant to restore public health in war-ravaged zones of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
IMA World Health, formerly known as Interchurch Medical Assistance Inc., has been active in African relief efforts since its founding in 1960. The nonprofit organization works around the globe through a worldwide network of a dozen church agencies.
"It's a hidden jewel," said Sher Horosko, who moved to Westminster 11 years ago. Horosko learned of IMA's work last year before becoming its director of development and communications in January. "People in Carroll County don't have to go to Baltimore and Washington to find an organization with this kind of reputation. It's right here in their backyard."
Dr. Leon Kintaudi, joined by American medical missionaries Dr. Larry Sthreshley and Dr. Bill Clemmer, came to New Windsor last week for meetings on the new three-year project, which will reopen hospitals and clinics that serve up to 10 million people in eastern Congo, the region most affected by nearly eight years of civil strife in the central African country.
Kintaudi, a Congolese native who has worked with IMA for several years, had another mission last week. On Thursday, Kintaudi was sworn in as a U.S. citizen in California, where his children were born and where he earned his medical degree.
Congo, formerly known as Zaire, has a nascent democracy struggling to take hold in a fragile postwar climate. Gunfire and explosions rocked Kinshasa, the Congolese capital last week, as government troops battled with the militia of a former rebel leader. They were the first clashes there since landmark elections last year.
Combat in eastern Congo, once considered one of the world's most dangerous places, thwarted relief efforts until recently.
Known as the Belgian Congo before independence in 1960, civil war broke out there in 1997 after decades of authoritarian rule under dictator Mobutu Sese Seko. Rebels loyal to Laurent Kabila overthrew Seko's government. A rebellion against Kabila followed suit, and Kabila was assassinated in early 2001. His son, Joseph, is now president.
"It's still a dark place for many," Kintaudi said. "You've had a struggling nation, starting from the Colonial period, then after independence came a reign of terror for almost 35 years. You have a population that has been raped."
About the size of the eastern United States, Congo is a resource-rich in such minerals as gold, cadium and diamonds and is home to more than 50 million people.
But millions of people are displaced from the conflict, Kintaudi said. Since 1998, about 4 million have died in the Congo as a result of war, disease and malnutrition, IMA doctors have said.
IMA's vast network of churches and missionaries has provided basic health services and disease prevention as public systems unraveled there. In October, the U.S. Agency for Internal Development awarded IMA one of its largest grants to a nonprofit, noting IMA's record as Congo's chief health care provider, even during the time of civil war.
Immunizing children against polio, tetanus and measles, preventing diarrheal diseases and pneumonia and distributing inexpensive mosquito nets to curb malaria infections are goals of the new Project AXxes.
Though all but eradicated from the developing world, these diseases still kill millions of impoverished people, particularly children in sub-Saharan Africa, the project's leaders said.
Kintaudi, 57, described traveling to a Congolese village to treat 56 children for measles. Forty-three of them died from fever-related seizures, he said.
"You have nothing," he said. "You don't even have something to drop the temperature of the child. What about those you don't see?"
IMA and Kintaudi's organization, the Protestant Church of Congo's medical division, also partnered in 2001 on a $25 million federal grant that provided similar services to Project AXxes, but in western Congo.
When Carroll residents support IMA's work, they know their dollars are going to good use, Horosko said.
Nonprofit watchdog Charity Navigator gives the organization a four-star rating, as 99 cents on every dollar donated goes toward programs rather than administrative costs.
Kintaudi said the support of IMA and his American colleagues keep him returning to Congo. He said he has more work to do at this watershed moment in his native land.
"It's a unique time to really do something special for the country," he said in New Windsor. "This period of my life is devoted to helping others, and then I have to move on to other things. Others will pick up where we leave off."