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At the Somita Clinic in Gambia, staff members stand near the new photovoltaic panels. Power Up Gambia raised funds for the system, its second project there. (GamSolar photo)

Kathryn Cunningham Hall had a comfortable upbringing in Chadds Ford, raised in the privilege of not having to sweat such small stuff as whether the lights would come on.

So the horror was especially profound when, as a summer volunteer at a hospital in West Africa four years ago, Cunningham Hall witnessed a frantic - and ultimately futile - scramble of doctors and nurses trying to save the life of a newborn.

The 3-day-old girl would die because Sulayman Jungkung General Hospital had run out of fuel for a generator needed to power a breathing machine.

From that death two things were born: Cunningham Hall's decision to become a doctor, and her commitment to help provide electricity to health-care facilities in that little-known impoverished country of 1.6 million people, Gambia.

Now 24 and married, Cunningham Hall is a third-year medical student at the University of Pennsylvania, enduring a regimen that barely allows time for sleep. But her West African aid mission powers on through a Philadelphia-based nonprofit that Cunningham Hall founded in 2006.

Power Up Gambia so far has raised nearly $500,000. About $300,000 of that has funded the installation of a 12-kilowatt solar and battery-backup system that now guarantees the availability of electricity 24/7 to 65 percent of Sulayman Jungkung hospital.

Other projects are in the works, including job training so that Gambia's people can maintain the solar systems that are installed.

"A huge blessing" is how Sulayman Jungkung's chief executive officer, Kebba Badgie, described the solar

system that has saved lives in his hospital and delivered predictability - and so much more.

But he reserved the highest praise for Cunningham Hall, speaking with an awe and reverence afforded saviors. For in his eyes, she is one.

"Kathryn is an angel in human form," Badgie said. "Kathryn has made the hopeless be hopeful."

His list of what a reliable energy source has meant to his hospital is long - the ability to perform surgeries and run ventilators at any time, to safely store blood and drugs, to be able to have high-speed Internet. That, he said, will enhance the education of medical students and help attract and retain more staff.

"Solar," Badgie said, "is the answer to quality health-care delivery."

Cunningham Hall considers her charitable work not in heroic terms, but as a life decision that should come naturally to anyone who learns of a need.

"This is what you do," she said last week during a rare respite between her internal-medicine rotation and studying for upcoming national board certification exams. "You just give back."

She credits her commitment to Gambia to her parents. Stories by her father, Scott Cunningham, about his time with the Peace Corps in West Africa intrigued her as a child; mother Carol's devotion to community nonprofit groups inspired her.

She had never heard of Gambia when Operation Crossroads Africa assigned her there in the summer of 2006. Once there, she "saw a lot of things that were just unbelievable at the time." Nothing more so than babies dying because of no dependable power source.

As her time there ran down and Cunningham Hall prepared to return home, she said she asked Badgie what she could do to help him. Expecting him to urge her to send medical supplies, she was stunned by his reply.

"He said, 'What we'd like is electricity full-time.' "

When she recounted Badgie's request back home, her mother's response was an enthusiastic, "You can do this!"

Within six months, a board of directors that included Cunningham Hall's mother, neighbors, and acquaintances was formed and $20,000 raised - much of it through appeals that Cunningham Hall delivered in person to schools, community groups, and individuals. Donations ranged from a quarter from a schoolboy to a $50,000 check from a local woman who reduced Cunningham Hall to tears.

Carol Tyler was another donor moved by Cunningham Hall's plea for help:

"I was so inspired by the presence of this young woman," recalled the member of the Chestnut Hill Rotary Club, which donated $1,000 to Power Up Gambia.

Besides making a personal contribution, the amount of which Tyler declined to disclose, she joined Cunningham Hall and the Power Up leader's family on a trip to Gambia about three years ago. Tyler said she was especially moved by the English-speaking country's severe lack of resources (annual income per capita in the largely agrarian-based economy is $350) and its poorly maintained roads.

What Gambia has in abundance is sun, which made solar panels a sensible objective for Power Up Gambia to embrace, said Lynn McConville, hired in January as the group's first executive director. She is one-half of the charity's paid staff. Paul Blore is director of development, hired in July after serving as an intern and then a volunteer for the group.

Their hiring, and Power Up's official certification as a 501(c)3 charity a year ago, were motivated by the realization that as a doctor in training, Cunningham Hall would have less and less time for fund-raising and volunteer recruitment. She currently is chairwoman of the organization's nine-member board.

Two weeks ago, Power Up recorded its second success - the installation of the first of two solar arrays, along with a battery-backup system, planned for a satellite clinic about 15 kilometers from Sulayman Jungkung hospital. Fund-raising soon will begin for a $300,000 solar system for a hospital in Gambia's remote central river region that serves a population of 600,000.

For now, Power Up's mission will remain narrowly focused on health-care facilities. With the right influx of money, that could change, Cunningham Hall said:

"If the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation gives us enough money to power up the country, sure, we will go to schools and homes."

 


 

To read more about Kathryn Cunningham Hall and her solar-energy efforts in Gambia, go to http://go.philly.com/gambia


Contact staff writer Diane Mastrull at 215-219-6479 or dmastrull@phillynews.com.