Nana Eyeson-Akiwowo was living in New York — an ocean away from her parents, who had moved back to their homeland of Ghana when she got the call: Her father had suffered a heart attack.
At the same time, she suffered with a feeling of helplessness. “Figuring out who the healthcare providers were, the available resources and all of that information was tiresome and I felt like I wasn’t getting the answers I would get if, for example, he were in the U.S.,” said Eyeson-Akiwowo, 37. The experience spurred her into creating her non-profit organization, African Health Now.
After weeks of recuperating, her father’s health improved. But she was acutely aware that had it not been for the everyday involvement of friends and family, her father’s story could have taken a different turn.
Knowing that her father’s health was restored was not enough for Nana. She decided she wanted to give other Ghananians access to tools, resources and information to prevent common health issues.
“I had this idea to volunteer in Ghana around Christmas time, but then I figured I could have an even bigger impact if I brought in my friends. I have about 40 friends who go to Ghana faithfully multiple times a year, so I asked them if they could commit to coming at the same time so we could do this health fair and they agreed,” Eyeson-Akiwowo explained.
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The “Gift of Life at Christmas” (as it was called at the time), was a success and so, Nana continued the holiday season event. By the time 2009 arrived, Nana had a few health fairs under her belt with the help of friends and family who remain actively involved in her cause. But Nana still had her “day job” as the bookings editor at Essence Magazine. “In 2009, it became clear to me that I had to make a career shift. I loved Essence and being a part of young girls’ lives, but the health fairs were really tugging at me and I knew I had to devote myself to that,” said Nana.
But instead of dropping everything and learning on the go, Nana registered the name African Health Now and headed back to school to learn the ropes of non-profit management. She took advantage of the resources at the Foundation Center and took on consulting work in event planning and production for non-profits. “I had never worked at a non-profit before, so I had to really sell myself. I would often say “If I can produce a photo shoot in Egypt while in Manhattan, I can do anything. I can do the impossible.’” Her strategy worked and she used those consultant opportunities to learn about every aspect of successful non-profit management from the executive director to development and having a board of directors.
African Health Now has held a total of six fairs that have attracted more than 4,000 people. Fair participants are given information about a variety of important health issues like dental care, self-examinations for breast lumps, blood pressure screenings and protection from STDs. In addition to advice, attendees also leave with goodie bags filled with dental hygiene products, condoms for men and women and contact information for local resources.
Still based in New York, African Health Now is also still a family affair. Nana’s husband takes care of the organization’s IT operation, and both of her parents volunteer.
“I want her to see that there is something bigger than herself. My parents taught me that and that is definitely something I will pass down to her. We are a growing organization. We plan to expand beyond Ghana eventually and by 2018, we will deploy our first mobile health unit. The next generation has to be involved in this work,” said Nana of African Health Now’s future.
To help fund those goals, African Health Now is holding its Gift of Life Cocktail Benefit (its first official fundraiser) on October 20 in Manhattan. There will be awards given to community leaders Wangechi Mutu, Bozoma Saint John and Dr. Samuel F. Quartey.