By Lee Ann De Reus

Every day survivors of sexual violence, of all ages, arrive at Panzi Hospital in search of medical care for their injuries. They come on foot, or in the back of a dilapidated vehicle, often with children in tow and lugging their few possessions.

At Panzi they join about 300 women and sometimes a couple of men who are currently receiving in-patient care for rape. During their stay, they receive free treatment and a clean, safe place to spend their days as they recover physically and psychologically from their trauma. Eventually, each survivor meets Dr. Denis Mukwege, the medical director/chief surgeon at Panzi Hospital who works tirelessly to repair women’s bodies and restore hope.

These were the first impressions and images I absorbed when I arrived at Panzi in 2009. I was there to teach a research methods class to medical residents, conduct a research project on the stigma associated with rape, and collect women’s stories for awareness-raising efforts in the U.S. While Dr. Mukwege expressed to me an interest in starting a foundation in the U.S. to support the hospital, I assumed he had particular individuals in mind for this major undertaking and dismissed my own involvement.

But then I returned home to unanticipated requests to speak about the crisis in the DRC and generous, motivated people who wanted to engage on the issues – and make a donation. I quickly realized that each time I shared the women’s words and their powerful stories, there was a missed opportunity to raise funds for the hospital. We needed to start a foundation!

Knowing I couldn’t possibly pull this off alone, I turned to a dear friend, Peter Frantz, who possessed the expertise and skills I lacked and the bulldog-stamina I knew we’d need to make this work. Together, with Dr. Mukwege, we launched Panzi Foundation USA (PFUSA) in 2010.

Prior to PFUSA, there was no mechanism for getting funds to the hospital. Now, thanks to the hard work of volunteer project managers Tera Herman, Mickey Port, and Arianna De Reus, we have our own campaigns such as Pennies4Panzi which raises funds for Aire de Jeux, a program for children who come with their mothers to the hospital. We have a traveling art exhibit in the U.S., “Peace Should Not Be This Fragile: A Portrait of Panzi,” which captures not just the struggles but the beauty of Congo via the works of U.S. high school students and professional artists.

We help support Maison Dorcas, a facility for women who have been discharged from the hospital but have nowhere to go. At MD, there are literacy and skills-based empowerment programs so women can eventually support themselves and their families. We also partner with many large and small non-profits in the U.S. and abroad on various initiatives for the hospital. With MedShare in Atlanta, we transport large shipping containers filled with medical supplies and equipment. We even have our own fair trade coffee now thanks to a partnership with Equal Exchange which led to the Congo Coffee Project.

It’s been an intense, sometimes crazy two years but we feel absolutely privileged to do this work. The hope expressed by survivors, the need to secure a healthy future for Congolese children, the people who “step up” to make a difference for Congo, are the true inspiration for Panzi Foundation USA.

Lee Ann is co-founder of Panzi Foundation USA and an Associate Professor at Penn State Altoona.

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