A long journey
On December 25th, 2005, a group of 11 men and 4 women from Kigutu gathered to talk about their most pressing issues. They chose a site for what is now the Sharon McKenna Community Health Center, and together convinced the community of subsistence farmers to gift 25 acres of land, their most valuable possession.
As construction plans were drawn, the local community began making bricks; women started carrying stones on their heads and together they pitched in 150,000 Burundian Francs ($150) to rent a truck and bring equipment to the health center site. More than 150 community members labored for days to carve nearly four miles of new road.
There were grueling setbacks, but giving up was never an option for this community. They pressed on, knowing that nothing worthwhile comes easily and that it would take a lengthy process to accomplish their mission. Everyone understood that we had to work together to achieve lasting results. And they did - with such passion and intensity that the work became a calling and the site became a place of healing, reconciliation, fun, and hopeful futures.
Fast forward a few years. We have now built a comprehensive development model that is holistic, offering clinical treatment and prevention services as well as agricultural and environmental protection programs, educational activities, and income-generating cooperatives. It is at times hard to believe how fast we have progressed given our humble beginnings. In December 2012, Burundi’s President Pierre Nkurunziza even declared: “Of all the public and private sector organizations operating in the country, Village Health Works is the best of all.”
VHW's visionary founder, president and CEO is a leading advocate for the most impoverished people in the world. His compassion, expertise, and life experience have made him a key voice in global health and international development.
An American citizen, Deo was born in rural Burundi, where he attended grade school and part of medical school. He left the country during the catastrophic war that lasted more than a decade and took the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. Deo survived not only this man-made tragedy and poverty, but also homelessness in New York City.
Deo’s life journey is told in Pulitzer Prize-winner Tracy Kidder’s most recent work, Strength in What Remains, a New York Times best seller named one of the best books of the year by the Washington Post, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Los Angeles Times, and the Chicago Tribune.
Despite the hurdles he faced in the U.S.—homelessness, illness, and low-paying work as a grocery store delivery boy— he eventually enrolled at Columbia University, where he received a bachelor's degree in biochemistry and philosophy. After graduating from Columbia, he attended the Harvard School of Public Health, where he met Dr. Paul Farmer and began working at the medical nonprofit organization Partners In Health. He left Partners In Health to continue his medical education at Dartmouth Medical School.
In 2005, guided by his unwavering conviction that humanity’s progress should be measured by how we honor the dignity of others - including those a world away - Deo traveled back to Burundi. There, in the remote village of Kigutu, he established Village Health Works, with the goal of removing barriers to dignity and progress by creating a model healthcare system. Deo's passion rallied the community of Kigutu into action. Thanks to community-donated land, a small amount of seed money from fellow American students and supporters, a community of compassionate volunteers, and Deo's leadership, the health center opened in December 2007. Deo's success in building a community-driven health and development organization is unprecedented, and makes Village Health Works unique among NGOs.
A frequent lecturer on global health, Deo is the recipient of multiple awards, including the 2014 Wheaton College Otis Social Justice Award, the 2014 Dalai Lama Unsung Hero of Compassion Award, the 2013 People to People International's Eisenhower Medallion Award, a 2013 honorary degree from Williams College, the 2011 International Medal Award of St. John’s University, and the 2010 Women Refugee Commission’s Voices of Courage Award.