Hello. I am Jeff Karasik. I am a pediatrician, and I am medical director of SHARE Africa, an or-ganization which was very close to Sharami’s heart. I would like to talk about the evolution of Sharami’s love of SHARE, and the orphaned children of Kenya, and, in turn, our love of Sharami.
About 8 years ago, I was appointed medical director of SHARE Africa. We focus on an impover-ished, AIDS ravaged, region in Kenya on the shore of Lake Victoria, a remote subsistence fishing village called Mbita, famous only for the incipience of the HIV epidemic and the orphans left be-hind. Our organization does medical and social service outreach. We sponsor 200+ children, or-phaned by the HIV epidemic and other basic medical problems, place them in school, and attend to the needs of their daily lives.
My first trip to Kenya, 10 years ago, was eye opening. I attended to children with malaria, cholera, etc. But something bothered me. I felt that I was treating them for problems that were only to return shortly thereafter. Yes, a child can be prescribed an anti-malarial but a week later there is another mosquito bite and I am back in the US. You get the point. I wanted to do something more sustaina-ble.
A year later, I was standing with SHARE’s president, Usha Wright, watching some of the children we sponsor playing in a dirt school yard during recess at one of the boarding schools. The children were wearing typical outfits that one might see in a 1970s US Parochial School- Plaid skirts, etc. But one child, one of our sponsored orphans, stood out. He was wearing an ancestral African headdress. We inquired from the school official and he told us that it belonged the boy’s father, a village elder, who had perished to the AIDS epidemic, and though they recognized that this was the boy’s way of grieving, they craved the tools to be able to help children like him.
Usha looked at me and said, “Jeff, I know this isn’t medical, but do you think we can help?” and my response was “it is absolutely medical, it is Behavioral Health,” a specialty on the way back burner of a developing country where life and death depended on whether your horse drawn wag-on can get you to a dispensary. “Lets’ find a way,” was my response.
So, back in the US, enthusiastically charged with the mission of creating a bereavement training program for educational and healthcare professionals in Kenya, I find myself lost. I didn’t know where to turn. I tried a few contacts in NYC, but then began to think local. I had read about an amazing program, Healing Hearts, at United Hospice of Rockland, that had helped so many griev-ing children, run by Sharami Kerr. Perhaps she could help direct me. I called her, and within the first 3 minutes of the conversation, she committed herself. And I quickly learned that when Sharami committed herself, she COMMITTED herself.
Traveling to Africa with Sharami and Eileen Schmidt, her coworker and supervisor at UHR, was quite an experience. They were like night and day, but both experts in their field. Eileen was a pragmatic, stern, Catholic-school educated, Irish social worker and Sharami was… well…everything but, as those of you who knew and loved her would agree. They were great to-gether. If you could define complementation, they would be it.
The Kenyan social workers, teachers, school administrators, medical people, bonded with Sharami immediately. Now, Kenyan people, in general, are very reserved and slow to trust outsiders. There are certain subjects that one doesn’t discuss. They were heavily influenced by Victorian British norms while they were colonized. The British left in 1964, but somehow the norms persisted. Well, this went out the window immediately with Sharami. She bridged cultural divides with an un-matched mix of innocence and professionalism. She spoke with them from the heart. And they re-sponded in kind. She built instantaneous lifelong partnerships. She had them confiding in her their experiences with issues such as child rape and molestation, LBGT issues and many others that were taboo in their culture. What an amazing outlet and resource!
We had scheduled a follow up mission for 2 years after the first. About a month before we were due to leave, I received a call from Eileen stating that, unfortunately, they wouldn’t be able to come due to the sudden and tragic loss of Sharami’s son, David, as well as Eileen’s mom. The devasta-tion reverberated from Kenya and back for her untimely tragedy. Thankfully, when her grief sub-sided, she and Eileen were able to come on a follow up mission, this time with the added compo-nent of trauma counselling.
Now Sharami wasn’t one to leave when it was over. She formed lasting bonds with the students via email that existed until the day she died. She will live on forever in the generations of African chil-dren whose lives were profoundly affected by her.
In conclusion, I’d like to get a little personal (not that this is about me) and talk about Sharami’s effect on me. She was an amazing teacher, just by being and doing. She taught me that bereave-ment and grief counseling is a science and art. There is a body of scientifically tested professional literature which she used in her courses. I have had many patients in my life as a pediatrician that have suffered untimely losses of parents, siblings, and other loved ones. I feel special that I can offer them what Sharami has taught me. Even to this very day, I am working with a family in which the dad jumped off the Bear Mountain Bridge this summer, leaving a wife, 2 young adult children, and a teenager who is in his first year of college. Sharami is having a huge impact on this family’s grieving, through me, and I want to thank her for this.
Sharami leaves the world, and I mean this world, Africa to the USA and back, truly, a better place, and thus in my mind will live on forever.