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World of Difference in Kenya: "Ranger" Rick Nielsen

NAIROBI, Kenya (ABC 4 Utah) - For nearly a quarter century, Dr. Richard Nielsen has been going to Kenya. He told me, “It just got in my blood and every year I couldn’t wait to go back.”
Reporter’s note: The horror that played out in a Nairobi mall has focused the world’s attention on Kenya. This week ABC 4 Utah is also focusing on Kenya, but for a very different reason. World of Difference, a non-profit foundation based in Utah, recently took an expedition of volunteers to Kenya to build a school in a poor neighbor of Embakasi and work in Nairobi hospitals. The founders of World of Difference, Dr. Richard and Jodi Nielsen of Salem, have a track record of success in Kenya and were honored this year as “International Heroes” by the Utah Chapter of the American Red Cross. These reports are my first hand account of the work they do and the lives they change.

NAIROBI, Kenya (ABC 4 Utah) - For nearly a quarter century, Dr. Richard Nielsen has been going to Kenya. He told me, “It just got in my blood and every year I couldn’t wait to go back.”

Just the top of his resume is enough to impress:

- President of Rocky Mountain University of Health Professions in Provo.

- He started in Africa with Operation Smile and has now co-founded not one, but two charities that currently operate in Africa.

What’s more, as a naval officer he once commanded the physical therapy department at the prestigious Bethesda Naval Hospital. He was a physical therapist to presidents.

“He was an absolute genius with a Franklin day planner. There was no one who used that planner like Rick did,” said Melanie Carlone who served as Dr. Nielsen’s 2nd in command at Bethesda.

Carlone remembers, “When he came into our department there was a lot of backbiting and division. And he came in very clear that accountability was going to be one of the main focuses - and loving each other as a family. You didn’t talk like that in the military! But we did in our clinic.”

Yet, Dr. Nielsen betrays none of that impressive resume in his demeanor. He is humble.  Unassuming.  “It’s not about him. It’s about what he can contribute, where he can contribute,” said his wife, Jodi. “He has so many gifts and talents, so many ideas, things that he wants to do, things that he wants to make happen.”

In organizing the World of Difference foundation, Jodi Nielsen says her husband was clear that the focus needed to be on education. They both believe it is the best hope, perhaps the only hope, for Kenya’s children.

She explained, “It’s not that we don’t have many people in the United States who need help, certainly we do. But we also have a lot of wonderful programs that are available here to assist people who need help. And those programs don’t exist there.”

By the way, in Kenya, no one calls him Dr. Nielsen or Richard or even Rick. To everyone in Kenya he’s just “Ranger”. It is a title of respect used by people such as Charles Otieno. Charles was a student in one of the first primary schools the Nielsens built in Kenya. He is now studying to be a critical care nurse.

Charles has learned well the lessons Dr. Nielsen – Ranger – has taught. “And when given some chance, which doesn’t come easily, you have to exploit every bit of it and help more people. One of the goals of Ranger is that … once he helps you, make sure you help somebody else.”

Ranger believes in the ripple effect. He knows he cannot help all those in need, but he can help a few of them. And those few can help others and they can help still others until a whole nation is changed.

Another of the students who went to one of their schools is now an architect. Dr. Nielsen recalled, “And he said, ‘I want to give back.’ So, we’re doing a project over there. We’re looking to build a vocational technical college. It’s something we’re putting a lot of effort into right now. And he drew up the plans for it. He did the architectural renderings. Here he is the product of that whole thing and now he’s willing to give back.”

The ripple effect.

Not impressed yet? Here’s one more thing to consider: Dr. Nielsen has climbed Mount Kilimanjaro eight times. And he plans to head for the peak of this 19,341 foot dormant volcano one more time next year.

I’d best start training now…

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