Professor’s donation reaches ‘East’ to help

Marianne Larsen admits she gets ‘that feeling’ when she knows something is right. And it was ‘that feeling’ which stirred the emotions in the Faculty of Education professor to make a make a $1.06 million donation to Western Heads East.

Western Heads East, started in 2003 by a group of Western students, faculty and staff, teaches and empowers east African mothers – affectionately called ‘Yogurt Mamas’ – to produce potentially life-saving probiotic yogurt.

The Yogurt Mamas will see an immediate upgrade to four existing yogurt kitchens in Tanzania and 16 new kitchens throughout eastern Africa. This translates into increasing capacity to feed 1,100 people each day living with HIV/AIDS during the next 10 years.

Larsen says she has been “waiting to find a good home for this money,” which she inherited from a family friend.

“It’s such a fantastic program,” says Larsen, who has committed $100,000 in each of the next 10 years. “I can’t say enough about Western Heads East. It’s great on so many different levels. It builds on grassroots knowledge here at Western and supports existing communities working together.”

Working with a probiotic bacterial strain created by Lawson Research scientist and Western professor Dr. Gregor Reid and Chr. Hansen (a Denmark food company) – in a yogurt formulated by Sharareh Hekmat from Brescia University College – the product helps alleviate infections related to HIV/AIDS, and provides nourishment to many adults and children.

Larsen learned more about the program this past winter from Western Heads East director Bob Gough, who was a student of hers in a comparative and international education course.

“Hopefully, with the 20 kitchens, these women will be able to train other women in Rwanda and other countries,” Larsen says. “The hope is to get all these kitchens going and, hopefully, the momentum will enable other kitchens to develop.”

Gough admits he is overwhelmed by the generosity and can only imagine the many lives that will be changed because of it.

“The impact of the donation will be truly phenomenal,” Gough says. “It will build significant health and nutrition awareness in the community and bring sustainable economic development to the area.”

Just a couple months ago, Larsen took on the role of Chair of the Western Heads East research committee, which oversees about half a dozen projects. She also hopes to use her involvement with the program to benefit her ongoing research in the area of comparative and international education.

Interested in global citizenship, she is fascinated with the involvement of student interns in Africa and the impacts it has on them personally.

“The students that go on these internships, do they see themselves as global citizens? Does it change their attitudes, values or outlook towards the world and thinking about those who are less fortunate in society?” Larsen asks. “That will be my research agenda, the impact of these internships on the students.”

So what about a trip to east Africa to see first-hand the work Western Heads East is accomplishing?

“I would love to have the chance to talk with the Yogurt Mamas to see the impact the students are having on them, which would be a research aspect,” she says. “I’m perhaps not as interested as other philanthropists may be in getting involved in the show. I trust the people who are doing it; they know what they’re doing.”

And what they are doing is making a huge difference in the world, Larsen adds.

“It’s marvelous what’s happened already before this donation,” she says. “The idea that it can get bigger and have a larger impact on more than just those currently involved, it’s amazing and great to be a part of that.”

Outside of Western, Larsen serves as president of the Johansen Larsen Foundation, toward which a bulk of her inheritance went to establish. The foundation provides funding for educational programs related to marginalized youth, individuals who are homeless and animals at risk.