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Mission: Sustainable opportunity

Warren Licht, MD, doesn’t shrink from a challenge.

Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro? Sure.

Crossing the Atacama Desert in Bolivia - the driest place on Earth? No problem.

Fearlessness has taken Dr. Licht around the world, and determination drives his international advocacy. Besides serving as vice chair of ambulatory medicine and director of medical affairs at Lenox Health Greenwich Village, Dr. Licht has provided education and resources to communities in Nicaragua and Kenya via two nonprofit organizations he helped establish.

Crossing Thresholds, one of those nonprofits, connects with grassroots community leaders in Kenya to develop sustainable opportunities for children, particularly in Kibera, a slum just outside Nairobi. About the size of Central Park and home to about 1.1 million people, Kibera is not officially recognized by the government.

"People have been squatting there since before World War I," Dr. Licht said. "Essentially, it's a community on a garbage heap."

Life expectancy: 30 years

Kibera has an open sewer system and no clean water, no legal source of electricity, no government-run schools and no social services. Drug use and crime are rampant. A daily train that runs through the community regularly kills residents, whose overall life expectancy is 30 years. High school graduation is extremely rare.

Crossing Thresholds developed early childhood intervention programs and built three schools. Drug Fighters Primary School serves 300-plus students in 10 classrooms, and has a kitchen, dining hall, dormitory and youth activities center. Facing the Future School serves more than 300 students amid seven classrooms, office space and a water system, plus a newly constructed computer center, health clinic, community outreach space and dining hall. For Drug Fighters graduates, Crossing Thresholds helped build Crossing Thresholds High School, which opened earlier this year. Situated on donated farmland 100 miles north of Nairobi, the school serves local students plus teens from Kibera, who are offered housing. A fourth school will be completed this year.

"There's almost no chance for kids from the Kibera slum," Dr. Licht said. "We wanted to make a difference by contributing to something that is sustainable."

That's always been the Crossing Thresholds mission. The organization was born from Dr. Licht's original brainchild, an international nonprofit that provides health and wellness services in the Dominican Republic and Nicaragua. Dr. Licht was that charity's medical director for 15 years. He mostly conducted "roaming clinics," but soon learned they weren't a practical solution.

"We would appear in the most rural villages of Nicaragua and run these ambulatory clinics," he said. "We'd create exam rooms, physician stations and set up a pharmacy with in-country purchased medications. The clinics attracted 'a very cafeteria-like flow' of patients," Dr. Licht added. But there was a problem.

"I soon realized that I'm exposing the local people to the idea of Western medicine, a concept they may never have the opportunity to be exposed to again," he said. "This is completely unsustainable. Why am I showing someone that I can give them a pill for a condition when they may never have access to that pill again?"

quotation mark As long as I can walk, I’m going to keep doing what I am doing.
Warren Licht, MD

Shifting to sustainability

So Dr. Licht shifted toward providing public health education and promoting natural medicine and holistic therapies. "What can the community grow in their backyards, and what medicinal plants can they use?" he said. "In addition, what can I teach them from a public health standpoint to prevent disease: how to prevent heartburn; how to prevent headaches; how to prevent sexually transmitted diseases; the benefits of breastfeeding."

Dr. Licht saved lives with the first nonprofit, yet rapid growth led to unwieldy organizational focus, he said.

"When you build something - an idea from your kitchen table - and it is so successful, that success can blossom into something you never thought possible," he said. "As a product of that success, the board of directors grew and there were lots of different ideas, which are important for an organization to continue to move forward.

"However, the executive director, myself and a few core board members - especially the original board members - felt that after 15 years of doing that kind of work, it wasn't having the impact we originally envisioned."

This core group then established Crossing Thresholds to focus on working with community leaders to identify impact areas. Its progress has provided meaningful opportunities for children in Kibera.

To remain active, Dr. Licht travels to Kenya with fellow board members and donors. Recently, they observed the Nyeri High School operations, plus the region's mountain gorilla conservation efforts.

"We spent a couple days with the gorillas," he said. "These mountain gorillas were once endangered and are now being protected. It showed that all of the world's creatures are equally necessary and connected and deserve the opportunity to contribute to the planet."

Few have the mettle or the compassion to face the struggles of the desperately poor. To Dr. Licht, it's about as insurmountable as Mount Kilimanjaro.

"As long as I can walk, I'm going to keep doing what I am doing," he said.

Join the efforts in Kenya:
Crossing Thresholds