THE BLOG

The Nanny Who Could, and Did - Our First 'Global Health Heroes' Winner

06/24/2013 01:44 pm ET | Updated Aug 24, 2013

I am thrilled to announce the winner of our first $1,000 gift in recognition of a person who is making a difference in global health. My hope is that this modest gift inspires you to recognize your own potential to make a difference in the world. As the big players in global health work to achieve the health Millennium Development Goals, it's important to remember that every one of us has the power to touch others and save lives, whether through a simple donation or a heroic endeavor, like the story of Marie de Silva.

Nannies are the backbone of so many families, multitasking through their days with meal prep, housekeeping, schedule management and so much more. It's hard work. Which is why so many parents say the same thing: "I can't imagine getting by without [fill in your nanny's name here]!!"

Meet Marie da Silva, a nanny who has truly raised the bar on impacting children's lives. Marie is a native of Malawi. She moved to the United States to improve her life, and spent twenty years living and working as a nanny. While Marie tended to the children of her employers, all of whom were hugely wealthy by Malawian standards, she heard a steady drumbeat of terrible news about her family back home: Over a ten year period Marie lost fourteen members of her family to AIDS, including her brother and her father, who died within three days of one another.

A loss like Marie's is hard for most of us to comprehend. We struggle to deal with the emotions of a single sick relative or with the untimely death of a friend or loved one. But how can we relate to death when it's so far away or on such a large scale? In Malawi, the average life expectancy is just 50 years, there are over 1.4 million orphans, and the AIDS epidemic affects more than ten percent of the population. It's too easy to look the other way.

Marie couldn't look the other way. So she decided to do something with her grief, and with the resources she had from working as a nanny. As a natural caretaker and a passionate advocate for children, Marie felt it was time to use the money she was earning in Los Angeles to make a difference in Malawi.

In 2003 she found her calling. Marie learned that a local Malawian school with 50 students, mostly AIDS orphans, was due to close. Using funds she'd saved and with her mother's help back home, Marie converted her family home in Malawi into a makeshift schoolhouse, and she hired a team of student teachers to instruct. From this modest start, the Jacaranda School was born.

Marie's story of building the Jacaranda School is, in many ways, the story of how all successful people build things. She made some bold initial decisions, she was willing to learn after the school began operating, and she made changes to address the difficulties in front of her. As a businessman and philanthropist, I have great admiration for Marie's approach.

While the fledgling Jacaranda School grew, Marie and her staff faced challenge after challenge. When Marie learned that students were dropping out because their hunger made it difficult for them to concentrate on their lessons, she funded a "porridge program" by persuading ten of her US-based nanny friends to pledge $10 per month each. (Think about this the next time you think you "can't afford" a charitable donation.) Marie helped tackle her students' medical problems by opening a clinic staffed by a registered nurse. Children now get regular check-ups and anti-malarial mosquito nets for their beds, and those who are HIV-positive get trips to the hospital to receive their life-saving anti-retroviral (ARV) medications.

Today the Jacaranda School educates 430 students -- all orphans -- and it is the only entirely free primary and secondary school in Malawi. Its success has earned wide recognition globally, and Marie was even featured as one of the CNN Heroes. Amazingly, and of great pride for Marie, one of Jacaranda's students recently won first prize in the Royal Commonwealth Essay competition, beating entries from 54 other Commonwealth countries.

When Marie found out that she was the first winner of the "Global Health Heroes" competition here in the Huffington Post, her immediate thought was to calculate how many children she could send to college with the prize money. Deflecting thanks for all she has done, she was quick instead to thank governments like the United States that have made AIDS treatment accessible and affordable for millions of Africans, including her own brother and niece who are living with AIDS today because they can now get free ARV medication in Malawi.

"I would like to thank the American Government, including people like Presidents Clinton and Bush, who made it possible for us to get free anti-retroviral medications in my country. Today orphans at my school are able to live because of those medications. This is why I built a clinic at the school, so that we monitor their health, and that they do not die in vain as my family did. This is why I do what I do."

Thank you, Marie, for sharing your story, and for doing what you do. Nothing can reverse the loss of life that you personally suffered, but through your heroic efforts and those of your team at the Jacaranda School, you have giving new life to many who otherwise might not have made it.

Are you a Global Health Hero? Let me know your story, big or small, on how you have worked to make a difference in the health of the world. Submit your story by July 31st for your shot at the next $1,000 prize. To learn more go to http://mdgenvoy.org/news/submit-your-story-about-health-mdgs