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Ethiopia's Daughters

A Wilton organization working with Ethiopian schools and communities.



Gerry Nichols

Wilton residents are known for their sense of community and civic involvement, as well as their generosity when it comes to helping neighbors in need.  That commitment offering a helping hand extends globally. We spoke with Wilton’s Courtney Kleeman, who serves on the board of Ethiopia’s Daughters, an organization whose mission is "to work with Ethiopian schools and local communities to raise the standard of living.”  

Courtney stated, “After seeing great poverty on his bird-watching expeditions to the region, our dear friend, Gerry Nichols, started this organization to bring fresh water, medical care, and other services to the Rift Valley of southern Ethiopia. A truly wise man, he learned quickly that the longest lasting effect and changes come by aiding the female population.”

In Ethiopia, the women and girls are primarily responsible for gathering potable water for cooking, drinking, sanitation, and bathing, often walking for hours every day to a source to collect water to last their families until the next pilgrimage. As such, the girls are generally not in school, and the cycle of poverty and lack of education continues. A few years ago, Ethiopia’s Daughters was able to build a well next to a school, thereby enabling the families to have potable water and allowing the girls to get an education.

Courtney has witnessed both shocking conditions and also breathtaking beauty on her own trips to the Rift Valley with Ethiopia’s Daughters. Her role on these trips is to offer medical triage, registering patients who are then seen by the certified doctors who travel with the group. Past participants include anesthesiologist Dr. James Babashak; Dr. Susan Herson, a hospitalist; and Dr. Jay Kleeman, Courtney’s husband who is an orthopedic surgeon at Norwalk Hospital. Dr. Mike Smith and his wife Kathy,  and Dr. Robert Weiss, an ENT and board member of Ethiopia’s Daughters, are from Weston.

The group sets up a clinic in a rural village in Konso, and locals come by the hundreds to be seen.  Most cases that the team sees are treated simply: prenatal vitamins given to every pregnant woman, antibiotics for ear and eye infections from dirty water, and sometimes money to pay for travel to hospitals where more serious cases can get proper treatment.

Tears welled up in Courtney’s eyes as she recounted the story of a woman who brought her infant to the clinic to be treated for painful impetigo sores that covered his face and scalp.  The doctors gave the child steroids to combat the infection, and the woman was “so appreciative, so thankful, that she came back the next day to thank and hug everyone for what we had done for her child.” Clearly, for Courtney, working with Ethiopia’s Daughters is as rewarding as it is enlightening.  

She and her husband took their two sons with them on their trip to Ethiopia in 2012, in the hopes that their children would become “more globally aware and also more appreciative of the lives they had” in Fairfield County. Jackson, then 15, and Aaron, 11, saved up their own money to help defray the cost of the trip.  While in Konso, the boys were put to work. Jackson collected and sterilized medical instruments, and while his parents tended to patients, Aaron spent the hours giving recorder lessons and working on art projects with students.  “Music, like sports, is a great equalizer,” Courtney says. (The group also brought along soccer balls to distribute to the children they met.)

All Ethiopia’s Daughters efforts are done on a shoestring budget, and every dollar is stretched to the max. Volunteers pay their own way, but donations are needed for medical and school supplies, and other necessities. The need for magnifying reading glasses is also great: the women of the village require them for counting seeds.

Upon their return from that trip in 2012, the Kleeman boys were struck by the fact that when they turned on a faucet at home, water flowed out.  Endowing her sons with a global perspective is something Courtney hopes will stay with them forever. 

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