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HomeLife In the BerkshiresSamya Rose Stumo...

Samya Rose Stumo Memorial Initiative launched

Thinking about all of the good that would have been done and the lives saved if Stumo had been given a chance to continue her work ultimately fueled the discussion about how to build her legacy.

Sheffield — Mike Snavely met Samya Stumo in Peru during the summer of 2014. She was doing the fieldwork for her undergraduate honors thesis in anthropology and he was an M.D./Ph.D. student at the time, working to identify a thesis topic in anthropology, as well.

“It was the world of anthropology that brought us together,” Snavely said in a recent phone interview from his home in Minnesota, noting that Stumo’s fieldwork was focused on the unintended consequences of government intervention when it came to health care for rural women in Peru. “This was the beginning of her career in terms of giving a voice to otherwise voiceless people,” said Snavely of his partner, a Sheffield native who was one of 157 people lost in the crash of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 in March. Plans for a memorial initiative are currently underway, the aim of which is to find talented young leaders to extend Stumo’s vision and mission for low- and middle-income countries, and areas to effect change focusing on human-centered health care. The initiative is implemented by the ThinkWell Institute, a 501(c)(3), and is governed by the Stumo family.

“Samya was an emerging powerhouse in the field of global health and we are looking to reward similar women through an annual, $100,000 fellowship,” Snavely explained. At the time of her death, Stumo was en route to Kenya and Uganda—having been hired by the Washington, D.C.-based ThinkWell Institute in December—tasked with helping to set up offices there for local staff as the nonprofit worked to bring universal health coverage to low-income countries. “We are just doing our best to honor what [Samya] would have felt was important and meaningful,” Snavely said of the initiative, currently in the grassroots fundraising stage. “It’s been very humbling,” said Snavely of the nearly $30,000 raised in the first month, calling it “a testament to the person Samya was and the type of work she was doing.”

The Stumo family, from left, Michael, Adnaan, Tor, Samya and Nadia Milleron.

The genesis for the Samya Rose Stumo Memorial Initiative came on the heels of her funeral. “Beyond the extreme pain and sense of loss of losing a loved one, there was additional sense of loss in that this emerging career was cut short,” Snavely said, noting that Stumo’s work hinged on giving a voice to those who are otherwise voiceless or marginalized. Thinking about all of the good that would have been done and the lives saved if Stumo had been given a chance to continue her work ultimately fueled the discussion about how to build her legacy.

“The big idea behind the fellowship is to [carry on] Samya’s vision,” said Snavely, the core tenets of which quickly became clear to her family: It should reward other women, emerging leaders in the field of global health, and should be targeted toward women who have faced personal financial barriers. “We wanted it to be rewarding to women who have demonstrated a commitment to disrupting the status quo in global health,” he added, noting that many global health developments abroad are prone to dysfunction, something Stumo gave voice to in her work.

The summer Snavely and Stumo met, she was deep in the throes of interviewing Peruvian women and health care providers to point out how a well-intentioned program often has unintended consequences for those on the ground. Case in point? The cash transfer program, one intended to help pregnant women that instead had women jumping through a variety of hoops in order to receive the benefit. Women were asked to leave their farms—often the source of their livelihood—to take a bus into town for clinic appointments, ultimately taking them away from their obligations of earning income and raising children. Stumo went on to write this up as her honors thesis—which she presented at a national conference—work that was given first prize among all students, including those at the graduate level. “This spoke both to the importance of the work she was doing and to her talent and ability as an anthropologist, researcher and advocate,” Snavely said of Stumo.

Stumo’s master’s thesis, which she completed at the University of Copenhagen, focused on the discrepancies between government policy on hepatitis and the experiences of those living with the disease. Stumo embarked on a survey of 27 European countries to understand the types of services patient groups were receiving and contrasting those findings with stated policy on viral hepatitis. As was the case in Peru, Stumo was able to point out that, despite the government’s best intentions to provide certain services, it was not how things played out on the ground for those living with the disease—especially IV drug users, a group that both carries a stigma and is often marginalized. Stumo’s findings, which revealed this particular group’s neglect, went on to be published in peer-review journals and became an important part of the conversation surrounding viral hepatitis.

Stumo’s passion for her work aligned with the founding ethos of ThinkWell: to conduct global health care development in what Snavely calls “a more transparent, sustainable and critical-thinking kind of way.” At the time of her death, Stumo was on her first assignment with ThinkWell. Her vision for health care development in other countries, like that of her organization, intended to be a disruptive, creative agent for change.

“The work we do requires quite a high degree of maturity, poise, experience and being seasoned. Samya somehow had all of that,” said Yogesh Rajkotia, founder and CEO of ThinkWell, adding, “She had a wisdom about her that I think a lot of folks who met her could pick up right away.” In short, he didn’t think twice about exposing Stumo to work with government officials in foreign countries.

The family of the late Samya Stumo, pictured above, is suing Boeing and perhaps others as a result of an airplane crash that killed their daughter and 156 others in Ethiopia. Photo courtesy Clifford Law Offices

Snavely is grateful to Rajkotia and ThinkWell, calling their buy-in to sponsor the fellowship “a natural fit,” one that will allow the family to govern the vision and mission while utilizing ThinkWell’s resources and connections to support recipients. “The fellowship is a way of creating a hand-off from Samya to women who share her goals of making health care systems more responsive to people who are talked down to,” said Stumo’s uncle, Tarek Milleron. “If this had happened to another young member of our family, Samya would have jumped into action and done the same, probably better than the rest of us are able to,” which, perhaps, means her contributions to making the world a better place are not over, rather changed as her life continues to inspire others and remains a voice among us. “Samya had the kind of passion for her work on health that, over a career, directly translates into benefits for thousands of people. We want to honor her by extending Samya’s legacy through women like her.”

On Saturday, Stumo’s family held a news conference in Winsted, Connecticut, at the American Museum of Tort Law, which was founded by Samya’s great-uncle Ralph Nader. The legendary consumer activist called Boeing, the manufacturer of the 737 Max 8 on which Stumo was a passenger, a “mass killer.”

In April, Stumo’s family filed a federal lawsuit in Chicago against Boeing, claiming negligence, a failure to warn and civil conspiracy. U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., attended the news conference in Winsted, offered his support, and called Boeing officials “willful and knowing” violators who should be held accountable through criminal and civil penalties. In addition, Nadia Milleron, Stumo’s mother, wrote an op-ed in May for CNN.

Managing editor Terry Cowgill contributed to this report.

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