The oldest son of an immigrant Chinese family, Ted learned by the time he turned nine that he would either be the owner of a restaurant or go to medical school. “You will be happy after you succeed in doing what we tell you to do,” is typical of what Asian families instill in their children, he disclosed.
He spent his first 8 years in New York’s Chinatown before the family moved to Dayton, Ohio where his father worked as an aeronautical engineer. In Chinatown he had been one of a majority, but in Dayton he became one of a minority, having no peers of his ethnicity and having to travel 80-100 miles just to find a Chinese restaurant. During the 1950s, there were few other Chinese families in Southern Ohio
While his parents were not familiar with American culture, they trusted in certain institutions such as the YMCA, Boy Scouts, and the American Red Cross, all of which contributed to Ted’s moral development and ability to be a leader. He was surrounded by mentors and grew up aware of the need to serve others. He was an Eagle Scout and a trainer of trainers for the Red Cross.
Becoming a doctor
At age 20 he entered Northwestern University Medical School in Chicago where he met Connie, who would first become the change agent in his life and then his partner for life. She would introduce him to thinking beyond the field of medicine, beyond the idea of fame associated with making the big medical discovery. He found it exhilarating to be exposed to liberal arts classes and the creativity associated with the arts, a variance from the discipline of his medical goals.
Early aptitude tests had indicated a predisposition to social sciences and much less of an inclination toward the classes necessary for the pursuit of medicine. “I was driven by something other than aptitude,” he said.
Serving in Vietnam
He and Connie dreamed of working in South America taking care of children as a team – she as a physical therapist and he as an orthopedic surgeon. Newly married and with their first child (and another on the way), Ted was drafted into the armed services and sent to Vietnam. In Vietnam, Ted was assigned as an engineer (not a physician!) and served as Captain of the 101st Airborne Division.
“It was an opportunity to learn international development wartime style,” he said. He met with non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in Vietnam, most of which had started relief and development operations during the Korean War. It gave him an understanding of poverty and how to identify with civil society. Ted became the acting pediatrician in orphanages that had no medical coverage and worked on projects funded by the US government, learning about a variety of different environments. Unlike most memories of having served during wartime in Vietnam, “It was an exceedingly positive experience” and stimulated his interests in sociology even more.
Upon returning to the States, he finished his residency in urology at the University of Colorado.
Friends of Children of Vietnam
He and Connie adopted their third child and helped to start an adoption agency in Denver – Friends of Children of Vietnam (FCVN) – where Connie served as a social worker and he as medical director and eventually president of the board of directors. FCVN was one of seven agencies that participated in the evacuation of more than 2,500 Vietnamese orphans during Operation Babylift. After the war ended in 1975, the agency expanded to accommodate adoptions of children from other countries and continued to operate for about four decades.
In 1988 he and Connie traveled to Vietnam, thinking of it as “just a trip,” but would return motivated to start a new organization called Friendship Bridge – and the parents of two more adopted children.
Friendship Bridge started in 1989 as an umbrella organization involved in 15 different projects in Vietnam including medical relief, nursing, dentistry, and the shipping of medical supplies. Friendship Bridge was the first to ship supplies through the embargo, something Friendship Bridge later turned over to Project C.U.R.E.
For a time Ted “commuted” to Vietnam twice a year while working as a urologist at Lutheran Medical Center. He would take groups of 20 Evergreen people with him for a two-week stay during the 1990s, hauling in medical supplies and interacting with the local clinics and orphanages.
More than 400 American volunteers traveled to Vietnam under the umbrella of this organization; five programs continue today.
With the advent of the concept of micro-credit, Friendship Bridge began extending $100 loans to Vietnamese women.
The relationships Ted had built with NGOs during the war and the proven ability to work as a secular agency in a Communist country proved invaluable as the Nings developed new ideas to aid third-world countries. Their reputation of success caused the larger NGOs to refer Nike to Friendship Bridge when the footwear company began opening factories in Vietnam during the 1990s. Nike was looking for innovative ways to impact society in a positive way. With $300,000 in funding from Nike, Friendship Bridge set up what would become a nationwide banking system for women. The Vietnamese culture of high literacy and entrepreneurial spirit provided fertile ground for cultivating such a venture.
The women used their earnings to feed children, education, needs in the home, building self-sufficiency. As a planned side effect, the peer pressure associated with managing loans amongst themselves was utilized to instill acceptance of preventive health measures such as immunizations, treatment for malnutrition, diarrhea treatment, respirator infections, water treatment, et al. According to UNICEF, between 1995 and 2005, the microcredit model linked with preventive health provided a dramatic reversal of the high rates of malnutrition and death amongst rural children.
Friendship Bridge turned to addressing rural development and malnutrition in Guatemala in 1998 and shut down its operations in Vietnam in 2000. The Nings were leaders of Friendship Bridge until 2006.
While Friendship Bridge continued to work with adult Guatemalan women, in 2007 the Nings turned to starting another organization of their own: Starfish One-by-One, which focuses on effecting social change through education of Mayan girls 12 years old and up.
Guatemala, a country where there are 26 languages, presented a different set of social norms, including the fact that few indigenous girls are educated through grade 8. After cherry-picking small groups of girls, Starfish pledges to invest in their education over a six-year period beyond primary school, providing them with mentors from the same demographic background, working to effect social change “one by one.”
By the end of the first 5 years, the organization has 210 young women in its program, using the same concept of peer pressure to encourage breaking from tradition to be mothers by the age of 15. Mentors meet weekly with the students in groups of 15. They have created an environment where learning about birth control and health issues is equally as important as building self-esteem and leadership skills amongst their small rural communities.
With a recent $60,000 grant from Rotary International, Starfish is working to engage the local community by creating a Rotary Club of 25 members in the rural area they serve. The money will be used to develop internships so that the teenage girls will have opportunities to be introduced to a variety of professions while working with mentors. The young university women continue to live at home while attending college classes one day per week, allowing them to influence family change.
EAS+Y Evergreen Alliance for Sustainability (plus You)
As an outgrowth of an eco-circle that began meeting in the Evergreen community, the Nings formed Evergreen Alliance for Sustainability (plus You) – better known as EAS+Y – as an umbrella for ideas for sustainability. The group has worked to encourage recycling at public and private events, utilization of reusable grocery bags, and the recycling of Christmas trees. Based on their past success of working with young people to effect change, they count on students to influence behaviors at home.
As a project of EAS+Y, a community garden located at Buchanan Park is underway in cooperation with the Evergreen Park and Recreation District.
Although Ted continues to teach urology part-time at Denver Health Hospital, he is a self-described amateur sociologist. “I love to see things come together – I love to see people come together,” he says. He’s a master at looking for the right pieces and then putting those pieces into place.
Ted grew up with Midwestern values, gaining moral guidance and learning leadership skills through his involvement with scouting and other trusted organizations. Medicine taught him a discipline, and certain skills like his ability to read quickly and absorb a lot of information enabled him to distill what he researched, summarizing and organizing concepts for a number of extensive undertakings. He’s made use of his experience and talent to give back to humanity over a lifetime.
In 2007 Ted was awarded a Honorary Doctorate from the University of Colorado for being a clinical professor of urology in The Medical School who went off and did something different for a doctor in social development.
He was also the recipient of the Minoru Yasui Community Volunteer Award (2002) and the Jefferson Medal that same year.
Source: Interview with Ted Ning
In October 2016, Connie and Ted Ning were honored at the 2016 Global Health Symposium for having made a significant and exemplary contribution to the sustained improvement of the health of multiple populations over an extended period of time in a global health setting.