Super Bowl XLIX is just two days away, but the greatest NFL news story is about a public health hero — not a deflated football. Madieu Williams played nine years in pro football for the Cincinnati Bengals, Minnesota Vikings, San Francisco 49ers and the Washington Redskins. All along, he’s demonstrated a unique passion in public health; in 2005, he created the Madieu Williams Foundation to improve education, health and fitness for underprivileged youth both in the United States and in his native Sierra Leone. Earlier this month the National Association of Distinguished Professionals named him its executive of the year member for excellence in nonprofit.

While the Ebola outbreak swept through West Africa this summer, Williams, his foundation, and University of Maryland-College Park students and faculty traveled to Sierra Leone to provide support. Additionally  his foundation set up an Ebola relief fund to provide food and essential resources to families in Sierra Leone communities, raising more than $6,000 in two months.

Public Health Newswire caught up with Williams to talk about his experiences and why “partnerships are everything.”

 

Photo by Madieu Williams

Q: Tell us about your interest in public health and how you’ve brought it to Sierra Leone.

I think it all starts from birth. From growing up in Sierra Leone, leaving, coming back and visiting frequently allows me to see first-hand what’s taking place from a public health perspective, and things we can do to make a difference.

This past summer during the Ebola epidemic between June and July, we had a team of Global Public Health Scholars at the University of Maryland, my alma mater, led by Professor Elisabeth Maring, who took a couple students down to Sierra Leone and conducted public health workshops in the communities where schools are located. This included all sorts of things, like teaching basic sanitary hand-washing techniques and hygiene. Some of these are things we take for granted here in the U.S. Kids often don’t even have access to clean water and are walking from village to village to get to school. We talked to members of the community, engaged them in surveys and just made sure we were very hands on.

Q: You’ve seen the crippling effects of Ebola in Sierra Leone. Can you tell us how communities you’ve seen have been impacted?

I can tell you that Ebola has exposed inefficiencies in the health care system in Sierra Leone. The effects of the virus are felt in the education system and economy as well. With the lack of imports/exports, inflation is a huge problem. Entire school systems have been closed since September or last summer. That’s half of the school year already lost. When you look at the fragile economic infrastructure that already exists since being removed from civil war, Sierra Leone cannot afford to have kids not going to school, it can’t afford inflation due to Ebola.

Q: The U.S. has spent significant resources to help fight Ebola in West Africa, and to educate communities on how they can help prevent further spread. What lessons have you learned in your time spent in Sierra Leone this summer?

Professor Maring says it best, we’re not just going there to teach them. We’re learning from them as much as they’re learning from us.  We don’t just look at them just as members of the community. We view them as partners, and that we’re privileged to have them as part of our lives. We are able to get things accomplished with that mind set and behavior.

My biggest takeaway — and you’ve seen this with how communities (have responded) when Ebola began spreading — is the importance of trust. If you want to get through to people, you have to establish a relationship. We’ve been there for over five years now, teachers from Boys-Latin School in Baltimore and our foundation. We have a presence there; the community knows who we are. We’ve built trust by staying in connection with members of the community after we leave, whether its through monthly email updates, text messages or Skype.

Q: APHA aims to create the healthiest nation in one generation by 2030, and one of our guiding priorities is to improve public health infrastructure and capacity. Your foundation focuses on partnerships to get this done. What is the importance of partnerships in public health, and how does your foundation build them?

Partnerships are crucial because no one man is an island. We all need each other to work cooperatively. For instance this summer, we brought the Maryland engineering team to Sierra Leone and they installed a UV water filtration system for students (editor’s note: engineering students also laid the foundation for a secondary school).

It’s so important to have partners. This is our (foundation’s) first year partnering with the Maryland School of Public Health because we need to  provide more educational resources and more training regarding public health issues surrounding the world and communities we live in. And we have global and community partnerships, from Sierra Leone to things we do in Prince Georges County (Md.).