From her Oakdale home, Relindis Oyebog Moffor is often working on projects a half a world away.
A registered nurse with expertise in HIV/AIDS, the Cameroon native started her own nonprofit organization six years ago to help those in her home country struggling with the disease.
What began as an educational program and provider of antiretroviral drugs to eight people infected with the virus has grown to serve about 300 people out of two offices in Bambui—the town where Moffor’s grandmother lived, and where she’d spend summers as a child—and nearby Nsongwa.
When Moffor gets home from her work as a clinical director at Bethesda Hospital in St. Paul, she often spends her evenings responding to email messages from her staff of five in Cameroon, making connections with possible donors and corresponding with the individuals and groups across the country she’s working with to plan and fundraise for an orphanage in Nsongwa for children infected with HIV.
“I’m exhausted, I’m tired, I’m stressed,” she said, “but I love what I’m doing.”
Moffor started her organization—Angel of Mercy—in 2005, shortly after the death of her grandmother.
Her grandmother’s children and grandchildren weren't living nearby when she died, and so to thank the people in the town for taking care of her, she wanted to do something for them.
She asked the village leader to suggest 10 people with HIV that she could serve. She bought their antiretroviral drugs—which weren't paid for then by Cameroon’s government, as they are now—and she provided education on preventing the spread of HIV in schools.
She rented an office and hired staff members. The organization offered a support group for HIV positive patients to teach them how to manage their medications. Just supplying the medications for the patients was a huge service, she said. Otherwise, they would have had to get themselves to the hospital about 10 miles away, wait all day with hundreds of others under a tree outside, and hope by the time their turn came up the hospital still had medications left for them, she said.
Over the years, the number of people served and programs offered has grown, she said.
People with HIV manage a piece of farmland she purchased in Bambui, using it to grow crops for themselves, and to sell if they have extra. Besides being a source of food, it has also become a social center for those who work there, she said.
“They work together; they sit in groups under the trees; they sing songs,” she said. “To them it is so much fun.”
She replicated the program at the Nsongwa office using another piece of farmland. The organization also provides school supplies, education and food for school children, and tuition payments for kids infected with HIV. Each Easter, they do a “One Egg Per Child” program, where children are given hardboiled eggs. Children in Cameroon would typically not get a whole egg for themselves, she said.
The organization raises some money by operating a retail store—selling personal hygiene, beauty and health products—and selling kerosene, something villagers previously had to go miles to get when the one gas station in town that sold it would run out.
Over the years, she said, she’s learned to listen to what the employees and people she’s serving want. It was tough at first, she said, to hear someone say they wanted clothes when she was offering them medications, for example.
“I really had to step back, and I said to myself, 'I’m going there to help people, it should be something that has meaning to them.
“'It’s not what I think they need, it’s what they think they need,'” she said. “I had to come up with a different approach. I had to think like them. I had to see life they way they see it.”
Moffor said she’s focusing now on trying to maintain the programs Angel of Mercy has already started rather than adding more, however, she is working together with an organization called 200 Orphanages Worldwide to raise the money to build an orphanage for 40 kids with HIV in Nsongwa. She said a class in Idaho is helping raise money for the building, an architect has donated her services to design it and various fundraisers for the project have taken place all over the country.
Although Moffor works full time, she gets to Cameroon as often as she can, she said. She was there about three or four times in the past year, she said.
It has been rewarding to see the progress she’s made over the years, she said.
In the past three years, none of the patients have died. It’s a big accomplishment, she said, because some have full-blown AIDS.
She’s funded much of the operation with her own money, and with the weak economy, donations from other sources have dwindled, she said. She has gotten financial support from Oakdale’s Guardian Angels Church, where she’s a member, said pastoral minister Bob Walz.
“What’s amazing about Relindis is that she gives so much of herself,” Walz said. “She goes there and uses her vacation, contributes what money she has to her cause.
“She’s using her talent for nursing ... and she’s reaching back into her own country,” he said.
Moffor came to the United States in 1986 intending to become a nurse, but it was only eight years ago when she finally got her nursing license. It took years of struggle, she said, to support herself and to pay her way through school. But it also made her who she is today.
“It’s been one tough road after the other, but I never gave up,” she said. And although the economy has made it tougher than ever to keep Angel of Mercy going, she said she’ll approach that work in the same way.
“I still haven’t given up,” she said, “and I will not give up.”
For more information on Angel of Mercy, visit the website at http://www.angelofmercyusa.org.