Steamboat Springs Steamboat Springs resident Paul Hebert learned through a Facebook message in February that he would be honored with the Jonathan Myrick Daniels Humanitarian Award from the Virginia Military Institute.
“I almost thought it was a joke,” he said Tuesday, sitting in the backyard of his Old Town home.
But after contacting the superintendent’s office at the Lexington, Va., military college, Hebert discovered that he indeed had been selected as the third recipient — and the first as a graduate of the school — for the award.
The award recognizes a person’s humanitarian public service and “significant personal sacrifices to protect or improve the lives of others,” according to the VMI website.
The award is named in honor of 1961 VMI graduate Jonathan Daniels, who was shot and killed while protecting a black teenage girl during the voter registration drive in 1965 in Alabama.
Past recipients include President Jimmy Carter and former United Nations Ambassador Andrew Young.
“I was totally flabbergasted,” Hebert said. “You go about your life, and you’re just doing what you’re doing the way you want to do it without thinking about being recognized.”
Hebert earned his bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from VMI and master’s and doctorate degrees in environmental engineering/planning from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He first worked abroad in 1974 in Iran.
Since then, Hebert and his wife of 41 years, Mayling Simpson-Hebert, have worked on four continents.
They have lived in countries including the Philippines, Nepal, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Switzerland, Ethiopia and Kenya.
He has worked for the World Bank, the World Health Organization and for 17 years with the United Nations.
As a senior at VMI during the Vietnam War, Hebert said he reached a decision that he couldn’t quite explain.
“I want to get abroad. I want to do development work. I want to see the world and make a contribution,” he recalled thinking. “Mayling felt the same way.
“We just had this bug that we wanted to work and live abroad.”
The Heberts returned to Steamboat, their home in the U.S. since 1985, July 2 after spending 2 1/2 years in Nairobi, Kenya. For the past year and a half they helped the Anajali Primary School in the Kibera slum with Catholic Relief Services, for which Mayling is a regional health, water and sanitation advisor.
The K-8 boarding school started in 2000 with six students has grown to more than 450 students, mostly orphans. Hebert said it costs students between $600 and $800 to attend the school.
He said for those youths, their dream is to attend high school.
Hebert is trying to fulfill that dream.
For being named the Daniels Humanitarian Award winner, Hebert was given a $25,000 honorarium.
He used that money to buy land about 25 miles outside Nairobi to build a high school for the graduates of Anajali Primary School. Hebert said he hopes he can use the award, which he’ll receive in a ceremony next March at VMI, to encourage fundraising for the high school.
To Hebert, humanitarian work is helping people get the most basic of needs that allow them to survive.
He and Mayling personally are supporting eight children.
“It’s those kinds of things — when you can make a personal contact and see an individual benefiting — that is more rewarding than the work we’ve done,” he said.
The Heberts are going back to Nairobi at the end of the summer and plan to return to Steamboat in December.
Their next adventure may be around the corner, but they always return to Steamboat.
“When you live abroad and move around from country to country, it’s good to have a solid rock to come back to,” Mayling said. “For us, Steamboat is that.”