It is that time of year when students everywhere take to the stage in recitals of one sort or another to showcase their accomplishments. But when Stephanie Chapin, 17, of Pennington, sits down to play the piano at the Nassau Presbyterian Church in Princeton on Saturday, June 25, she will be showcasing not just her own talent but also the extraordinary power of individuals to make a difference in the world.
The Hopewell Valley Central High School senior has turned her recital into a benefit for the United Front Against Riverblindness. UFAR is a non-profit organization started by Dr. Daniel Shungu, a Lawrenceville resident and native of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), who has turned his life’s work into an effort to fight the debilitating disease in his country. In many remote villages there, as many as 80 to 90 percent of the adults are blind and children cannot attend school because they must lead the adults around to hunt, fish, and gather water.
Chapin’s piano teacher, Deborah Tonner, saw a newsletter about Shungu’s efforts posted on a bulletin board at the church when she went there to arrange a venue for her star pupil’s recital. Intrigued, she told Chapin about Shungu’s foundation. In a meeting at his home – where he gave them a dose of Congolese hospitality with snacks of fried plantains and cashews – Shungu showed Tonner and Chapin a slideshow explaining the horrific social and economic consequences of riverblindness. On the spot, Chapin made the decision to turn her recital into a fundraiser. There is no formal admission but the suggested donation is $10. The fee to rent the hall has been picked up by Michael Rothwell, the manager of the Pennington Market, and other businesses have stepped in to help, including the Bagel Experience, also in Pennington, and Landau, Forest Jewelers, and Micawber Books in Princeton.
Tonner, who runs her studio, Meadow Lane Music, out of her Pennington home, says it’s been a joy for her to help these two remarkable people make a connection. "Stephanie is so very thoughtful, introspective, and kind. She’s only 17 but she is very observant. When there’s a disaster of some sort in the world she wants to respond." Chapin plans an upbeat, varied, one hour program featuring the Mozart Piano Fantasia in D minor. She will also perform a Count Basie piano/double bass duet with Carl West, 16, of Pennington; a Faure piano/flute duet with John Yi, 14, of Princeton; and an accompanied vocal trio with Tiffany Olszuk, 15, of Hopewell, Johanna Pederson, 17, of Pennington, and Briana Cifelli, 8, of Pennington. The trio will perform a Norwegian folk song, "Who Can Sail," with lyrics stunningly appropriate for the event. The verse asks, "Who can sail when the winds won’t blow/Who can part with one’s heart aglow, part when your tears are flowing." "The idea is that the people of the Congo need Dr. Shungu and the effort he is making for them," says Tonner. "He can’t abandon his countrymen."
‘I was very touched when I heard what they were going to do with the recital," says Shungu. "I couldn’t believe it, but then I do believe that God does things in very mysterious ways."
Shungu, a longtime Merck employee, took early retirement in 2002 with plans to spend the next phase of his life giving back to his native country, the Democratic Republic of Congo, the former Zaire, where he was born in 1942. "When I reflect back to my own upbringing, I cannot come to any other conclusion than I’ve been extremely fortunate. Many of my colleagues are already dead from one thing or another. God has been good to me, and I can help out. I grew up in a religious family, and I’ve always wanted to give back."
His grandfather was polygamous, and one of his children from his many wives was John, Shungu’s father. He didn’t get along with his father so he went to live with his uncle, who worked at a Methodist Mission Station, a move that would profoundly affect the course of his own life and eventually, that of his own son, Daniel.
"John was a bright boy, and the missionaries fell in love with him," says Shungu as he fondly recounts his family’s story. "There was also a bright young lady there named Louise so the missionaries did some match-making." John and Louise would marry and have 13 children. Daniel would be their third child and the first of eight boys. His father became a Methodist pastor, studied theology, and rose through the church ranks to become the first Congolese bishop of the Methodist church.
Shungu says his life philosophy took shape inside a warm, loving, and religious family, where he was also surrounded by the love of many other people. "Our house was an open door house. People would come and go around breakfast, lunch, and supper because they knew they would not be refused. I didn’t have a permanent bed because if a guest came to the house it was given to them."
He attended high school in the Congo, a joint venture funded by Methodist and Presbyterian missionaries. In his senior year he participated in an exchange program and lived with a family in Homer, New York, south of Syracuse, going to Homer High School for one year. "I was an ambassador for my country and our culture." It was a difficult year, especially since he spoke not a word of English and his host family, which included three boys, spoke not a word of French. "I walked around with my French-English dictionary all the time," he recalls.
Congo became independent from Belgium in 1960 and as Shungu describes, "all hell broke loose." Instead of going back home, he decided to stay in the United States for college. The Methodist Church sponsored his studies at Albion College in Albion, Michigan, where he was a student from 1963 to 1967, majoring in science. When he finally did return home upon graduation, the school that had sent him to the United States for high school asked him to teach, and he taught physics and chemistry there for one year. But the call of America was strong, and after just one year, he opted to return to the United States.
His appetite for learning was insatiable and he pursued education with a vengeance, earning a masters in biology at Wayne State University, then moving on to the University of Maryland for his PhD. From there he went to Temple University on a fellowship in infectious disease and clinical microbiology. He considered returning home to Africa, but was put off by the continuing political instability and social upheaval.
Then serendipity stepped in. His mentor at Temple received a letter from Merck saying the company needed someone with a background in infectious disease and clinical microbiology, precisely what Shungu had studied at Temple.
In 1980 he started his career at Merck in a newly created position as director of clinical microbiology. In that same year he moved to a comfortable split-level home on a quiet, tree-lined street in Lawrenceville, where he still lives. He and his wife, though separated now, had two sons. Peter went to Tufts University to study international relations; spent a year with AmeriCorps, the domestic version of the Peace Corps; and is now working as an outreach coordinator at the Worcester College of Pharmacy in Massachusetts.
Son Nicholas has just finished his junior year studying pre-med at Duke University. He is spending the summer in Capetown, South Africa, in an internship program for pre-med students to gain firsthand experience in practicing medicine with limited means.
Nicholas’ graduation from Lawrence High school and admission to Duke University with a full scholarship provided the catalyst for Shungu to make a major change. "The minute he told me I wouldn’t need to give him any money for his college education, I said, ‘Things happen for a reason.’ That’s when I gave Merck two weeks notice."
He left Merck in December, 2002 after 22 years of service. In the summer of 2003, he took a trip home to the Congo and arranged a meeting with the Minister of Health. "He was quite busy but invited me to a breakfast at his home. I asked him, ‘What can I do, how can I help?’ Without hesitation he said, ‘Riverblindness. You can help us cure this terrible disease that is hurting our people and our country.’"
Riverblindness is a skin and eye disease caused by a filarial parasite called onchocerca volvulus. The disease is transmitted by a small black fly that breeds in fast-flowing waters, hence the name. The worldwide hot spots for riverblindness are Central and South America, Yemen, and Africa. Among the 28 African countries endemic for river blindness, the Democratic Republic of Congo, where Shungu was born,ranks second only to Nigeria in prevalence of the disease, with infection rates of 20 to 90 percent depending on the area. 13.1 million people there are infected annually, and about 70,000 people, or one out of every 900 people in the country, are blind from the disease.
The disease is transmitted by a bite from the black fly, which transmits larvae from an infected person to a healthy person. The tiny larvae proliferate in the body. It is when they move to the head, brain, and eye region and the body develops an inflammatory response.
In the 1970s Merck discovered a drug called Mectizan, developed originally from compounds found in a soil sample on a golf course in Japan. While it kills the larvae and can protect a person from going blind, it doesn’t kill the adult worms that live out their normal life span inside the body they have infected. In order to be effective, the drug must be taken once a year every year for 10 to 15 years, the complete lifespan of the adult worm.
In 1987 Merck announced the decision to provide Mectizan free of charge for as long as needed wherever it was needed to eliminate riverblindness as a public health problem. The World Health Organization also stepped in to help develop and promote community-based distribution programs. But the consistent problem has been distribution. Shungu quickly discovered that poor road and bridge infrastructures coupled with a lack of an appropriate means of transportation were the obstacles to getting Mectizan to the remote villages in his homeland where it was most needed.
"These infected people live out in the middle of nowhere. How do you get the drug out to them? I took a trip myself to figure that out, and it took me 10 full days to get from the city to the village." From his own travails came the inspiration to start a non-profit organization with the mission of raising funds to provide transportation – bicycles, canoes, motorcycles, and land cruisers – to haul the medicine all over the country, even to places previously inaccessible.
Shungu has made numerous trips back home on behalf of UFAR and is planning another trip this summer to meet with tribal leaders in the regions assigned him by the Congolese government and the World Health Organization. Here at home his fundraising strategy is very grassroots-based and includes talks to religious organizations, academic institutions, foundations, corporations, and private clubs.
Shungu now lives on his savings and pension from Merck. He has funded his trips to Africa out of his own pocket. "People are hearing the story and responding. I’m sure God meant for this to take place." Shungu is planning to be at Chapin’s concert at Nassau Presbyterian. Tonner says the connection that her student has established with Shungu is especially important because Chapin is planning to continue her fundraising efforts as a student at Brandeis University where she will matriculate in the fall.
UFAR has a goal of raising at least $30,000 annually, and the recital is giving a much-needed boost. Tonner wants people to know that many corporations have funds available for charity efforts by employees and their children. She urges people to contact their public relations director or human resources department to ask if funds are available. Lockheed Martin Systems Management in Marleton, where her husband works, has pledged $1,000, and all funds will be matched by Merck.
Tonner says meeting Shungu and getting involved in this project has not only had a profound impact on her student, but has reshaped her own outlook on life. "I’m not a sentimental person but he’s a modern day saint. He has taken upon himself a dangerous job that other people would not want to touch. He has a quiet love in his heart, especially for the kids. His kindness is such a gift. It’s really what life is all about, reaching out to help people who deserve help and they can’t get it on their own."
Piano recital to benefit UFAR, a foundation established to help prevent the disease of riverblindness in the Congo, Saturday, June 25, 8 p.m., Nassau Presbyterian Church, 61 Nassau Street. Suggested free-will donation $10. 609-647-1416.