Young alumni help to bring health care to a community in Sierra Leone

Raphael Frankfurter ’13 at work in Sierra Leone and Shirley Gao ’13 with a local boy.
Raphael Frankfurter ’13 at work in Sierra Leone and Shirley Gao ’13 with a local boy.
Timothy McGinnis ’13; Courtesy Shirley Gao ’13

At the end of his freshman year, Raphael “Raphi” Frankfurter ’13 interned with Wellbody Alliance, a health-care organization in Sierra Leone that was assisting people desperately in need of medical care, including those who had lost limbs during the country’s 10-year civil war. Moved by what he encountered there, Frankfurter journeyed back to Sierra Leone the following three summers. Today, he is one of three young alumni — along with Shirley Gao ’13 and Timothy McGinnis ’13 — who have continued working with Wellbody after their internships ended. 

Wellbody Alliance was founded in 2006 by physician Dan Kelly ’03, Sierra Leonean physician Mohamed Bailor Barrie, and a small team of Kelly’s friends and family to provide basic health care to residents of post-war Sierra Leone’s Kono District. Since then, it has grown from a nascent NGO to a thriving community health-care organization that treats some 20,000 patients per year through its Kono clinic and is involved in managing care for another 8,000 to 10,000 patients through its community health-worker programs and partnerships with government clinics.

Timothy McGinnis ’13 gives a young man a lift.
Timothy McGinnis ’13 gives a young man a lift.
Shirley Gao ’13

Frankfurter and Gao — co-winners of the University’s 2013 Henry Richardson Labouisse ’26 Prize — are using their yearlong fellowships to address a number of needs at the clinic, including one of Kono’s major challenges: maternal and child health. The two have spent months planning and fundraising for a new delivery center and obstetrics clinical training site at Wellbody — the first of its kind in eastern Sierra Leone. Groundbreaking will take place this spring. 

Gao will work in Sierra Leone this spring, then head to the organization’s Boston office to work on development initiatives. She plans on a career in the global-health field, drawing on lessons she has learned with Wellbody: “Everyone is treated with dignity and respect. We consider the whole person, not just the illness,” says Gao. 

McGinnis oversees Boston-based interns, writes grant applications, and meets donors and potential partners. He will head to Oxford as a Rhodes scholar next fall.

Frankfurter will spend this spring in Africa overseeing the clinic and its programs, then return to the States to manage development efforts in Boston. He hopes to enter an M.D./Ph.D. program in anthropology, but for now he’s working to help Wellbody become self-sustaining. “I’ve learned a tremendous amount about public health and different models of NGO engagement,” Frankfurter says. “Being on the ground is critical; you can’t effect change without first understanding the context.” 

The dedication of these three young alumni has allowed Wellbody to grow, Kelly says. “They understand Wellbody’s work and are passionate about our mission,” he says. “You can’t teach that.”