How The 2016 Election Changed This Humanitarian Organization
This post was originally produced for Forbes.
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“The humanitarian flag that we had been waving was a privilege that we could no longer afford,” Sera Bonds, 44, says as her board and staff at Circle of Health International decided to increase their activism for women’s rights following the 2016 election.
Activism is in her blood. As a teenager in 1992, with her parents, she attended a National Organization for Women march in Washington, DC. “There was one issue in our family that was abortion and both my parents were very pro-choice,” she explains.
But when she launched the nonprofit, one of her early lessons was that she would have to choose between leading a humanitarian organization or human rights organization.
After finishing her master’s degree in public health, Bonds decided to pass up an opportunity to go work in Afghanistan for a large NGO and instead move with her boyfriend—now husband—into her mother’s Airstream trailer to live cheaply and launch her own organization instead.
After defining mission and purpose, her board encouraged her to tackle two initiatives at once—one easy and one hard. The easy one they chose was midwifery in Tibet. After hearing that, I couldn’t wait to hear what the hard one was. Be sure to watch the full interview with Bonds in the video player at the top of the article.
Sera Bonds, Circle of Health International CREDIT: CIRCLE OF HEALTH INTERNATIONAL
The more difficult project, which ultimately turned out to be much easier, was working on the West Bank to help Palestinian women cut off by the construction of border walls identify and develop alternative access to healthcare, especially for delivering and caring for babies.
Both projects were successful and resulted in funding to do more work.
While in Tibet, the local leader of the NGO with whom she had partnered, sat her down and explained that she had a choice to make. She couldn’t be, he said, both a human rights organization and a humanitarian one. In places like Tibet, human rights organizations would not be welcome.
She decided then to build a humanitarian organization.
Circle of Health International, often abbreviated COHI, provides disaster relief, supplies, professional training and sustainable livelihoods for women in crisis situations. The crises may include conflicts, natural disasters, extreme poverty or the challenges of migration facing refugees.
Since its founding in 2004, the organization boasts of having helped three million women domestically and internationally. They have worked in Sri Lanka, Louisiana, Tibet, Tanzania, Israel, the Philippines, Palestine, Jordan, Syria, Oklahoma, Nicaragua, Sudan, Haiti and Afghanistan.
Eric Talbert, the western regional director for MedShare, has worked with COHI to provide medical supplies to communities in need so they can access health care. Recently, the partnership has included a response to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico; they continue working there to strengthen the health systems for women and children, having sent enough supplies to care for 12,000 people.
“Based on Sera’s vision, leadership, and integrity COHI provides maternal and child health in partnership with the communities they serve, from Sierra Leone to Southern Texas, which is based in healthcare as a human right so that women and children have access to the care they deserve, the kind of care that is grounded in dignity and respect, the kind of care we want our family and friends to receive,” he says.
After the 2016 election, which she views as a threat to women’s rights and to the LGBTQI community, Bonds and her team felt they couldn’t be “shy” anymore. Still, she admits, they are subtle. “Some people don’t even realize it’s happening or that we’re doing it.”
Today, Circle of Health International is working on the U.S.-Mexico border to send clinical volunteers to help with family reunification and asylee support.
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