Mayling Simpson-Herbert, who lives part time in Steamboat Springs, is a medical anthropologist who has worked in countries around the world hoping to stem the impact of diseases such as HIV, AIDS and malaria in Africa.

Photo by John F. Russell

Mayling Simpson-Herbert, who lives part time in Steamboat Springs, is a medical anthropologist who has worked in countries around the world hoping to stem the impact of diseases such as HIV, AIDS and malaria in Africa.

On the road, with a mission

Humanitarian workers return home to Steamboat Springs for the holidays

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— Mayling Simpson-Hebert's life, spent traveling across the globe as a medical anthropologist, reads like a good road trip novel.

The Steamboat Springs resident has seen the highest peaks of Nepal, tromped through the dense jungles of the Philippines, strolled through the markets of Tehran, and most recently, worked in the pastoral lands of East Africa.

Simpson-Hebert is the regional health adviser for Catholic Relief Services. Based in Ethiopia, she said her role is to help enhance health programs that reach communities who are most vulnerable to HIV and AIDS.

"As a medical anthropologist, what I do is I try to adapt programs to cultures. All the work I do now is prevention education," said Simpson-Hebert, at home in Steamboat for the holidays.

"Community groups could go through learning activities, like who can get AIDS, how is it transmitted, and they learn pretty thoroughly - not from a medical point of view - because most of the people we work with are essentially illiterate."

Using pictures to foster participatory discussions about how AIDS is transmitted, Simpson-Hebert said the lessons ask the community to take a deeper look at the their culture, such as what is happing in the community that would spread AIDS.

"We do similar work in schools with a program called 'In Charge,'" she said. "The reason we have that title is that we want kids to feel like they are in charge of whether or not they will be infected with AIDS. We have these kids look at all these different situations and discuss everything around it - how it may put them at risk - and we open up topics that are not discussed in that culture."

Simpson-Hebert's journey to East Africa began about four years ago when her husband, Paul Hebert, was appointed the region's director of the United Nations office for coordination and humanitarian affairs.

"I was just hoping to get something, but this turned out to be the perfect position for me - I was very lucky," she said.

Homecoming

Simpson-Hebert and her husband are no strangers to nomadic ways. Their life together actually began on the road while the two were working independently in Iran. But no matter where they set off to for their humanitarian or academic work, the road always leads back to Steamboat.

"In Iran, we met Paul and (former Steamboat city councilwoman) Arianthe Stettner in 1974," she said. "In 1979, we came out here and visited them, and we said some day, we are going to base ourselves in Steamboat. We were finally able to do that in 1985."

As a home base, Steamboat has served as a place to raise their children, keep old friends and have some sense of normalcy.

"It's difficult balancing a regular life," Paul Hebert said. "But establishing a base here was really great because we have some really good friends to come back to."

The family lived in Steamboat full time from 1985 to 1989, and again from 1998 to 2001, but while abroad in distant lands, they always tried to come back home to Steamboat at least twice a year.

"We knew we were going to have an international life, because Paul and I have training in international studies, so we wanted to establish a home for our children," she said.

During the family's full-time Steamboat years, Simpson-Hebert taught anthropology at the Colorado Mountain College and helped create the Community Alliance of the Yampa Valley, a nonprofit organization that is dedicated to smart growth in the area.

She called her work in Steamboat deeply rewarding, but the call to the road continues to lure the couple to foreign lands. After the holidays, they are moving to Nairobi, Kenya, where Simpson-Hebert will continue HIV/AIDS education prevention work that she said is producing tangible results.

"We see a lot of improvements in the areas we work, but the problem is, the need is so vast. Even with all the (nongovernmental organizations) working together in Africa, and all the government efforts, we are only reaching a small percentage," she said. "I would guess it would reach only 10 percent of what is needed. There is an awful lot of poverty and hunger."

Despite occasional backlash to her efforts from religious, community or government groups, Simpson-Hebert said she and her husband are committed to the region for at least two more years. In the meantime, they will continue their bi-annual visits to Steamboat.

The couple is in no hurry to slow down.

"Most medical anthropologists are academics and they focus on research," she said. "I have done a bit of that, but I'm doing right now the most satisfying work of my career, which is making a difference in people's lives - and I can see the difference."

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