(1944 - )
Connie’s desire to live in the mountains – not have a view of them – is what caused Ted and Connie Ning to relocate from Southeast Denver to Evergreen in 1976 when Ted, a urologist, was finishing his residency at the University of Colorado. They’d met while attending Northwestern in Chicago where she’d grown up.
Ted had been drafted into the army out of his internship; and while he was in Vietnam, they’d had a second child. Connie became involved with a group sending aid to Vietnamese orphanages, giving talks and raising money. They adopted a child from Vietnam, and Connie was busy “with a flock of kids.”
Friends of Children of Vietnam
The Nings helped to start an adoption agency in Denver – Friends of Children of Vietnam – one of seven agencies that participated in the evacuation of more than 2,500 Vietnamese orphans during Operation Babylift in April of 1975.
Ted’s exposure in the Vietnam War had put him out with the people, and he’d been eager to see the followup to work he’d done. In 1988 – before the US had diplomatic ties with Vietnam – the Nings were granted permission to visit the Communist country.
“It was dreadful,” Connie recalled, telling of visiting a women’s hospital in Hanoi with a small contingent of Americans, led by a diplomat. “There were rats in the nursery, no soap, women dying post-partum. It was almost midievil – it was an unbelievable place!”
As part of this emotional experience, she and one woman dying of cervical cancer locked eyes. Connie knew that, because of widespread testing via pap smears, not many women in the United States would die of cervical cancer. The woman was in a great deal of pain, and Connie couldn’t stop weeping; but in reality, “This was normal life in Vietnam,” Connie concluded.
The experience ignited what would become a lifelong mission for Connie to address women’s needs in under-developed countries. At the time Connie was a social worker and had a private practice as a marriage and family health therapist.
Motivated by anger at what she’d seen, Connie raised $5,000 in a local church and returned with others moved by her talks. That was the start of Friendship Bridge in 1989. Over the years the organization, originally based in Evergreen, shipped 140 tons of medical supplies and antibiotics, worked with women’s nursing programs, trained local urologists, and provided microcredit – lending small amounts of money to women for the purpose of small businesses and awarding scholarships for their children in Vietnam. Shipments of Silvadene crème – a topical medication that eases pain and fights bacterial infections – proved to be a ‘miracle drug’ to the Vietnamese.
During their 12 years with Friendship Bridge, the Nings traveled to Vietnam once or twice each year for a period of 2-3 weeks, taking 20 or so local supporters with them each time.
Connie and Ted were co-founders of Friendship Bridge. The nonprofit organization still exists but has turned its focus to microcredit in Guatemala, mainly because the Vietnamese government wouldn’t allow audits necessary to meet fundraising obligations back in the US. In its first 22 years, Friendship Bridge has worked with 29,000 borrowers with a repayment rate of 98%.
Starfish One by One
The Nings moved on in 2008 to start another nonprofit organization in Guatemala – Starfish One by One. The group works to ‘unlock and maximize the potential’ of Mayan girls, effecting meaningful change in the culture through education – one girl at a time.
When evaluating gender inequity from a global perspective, educating girls kept coming up over and over again, Connie explains. “If you took a young girl and educated her, she could really be the agent of change in that country.”
In a country where the typical indigenous girl is not educated beyond the sixth grade, Starfish has mentored 250 of the most promising young women for a six-year period, taking them through high school. The program then selects the top 10 percent of every graduating class to provide scholarships to study at prestigious universities in Guatemala. Key to the sustainability of support is taking local donors with them to their Central American center of activity near Lake Atitlan in the Sierra Madres.
“It’s important for girls to have a different vision of themselves,” Connie says. “We help them discover their gifts and actualize those gifts.”
In 2009, along with others who shared their concerns about ecological topics, the Nings helped to found the Evergreen Alliance for Sustainability + You (EAS+Y). The group has been effective in greening up Evergreen and creating two community gardens, one at Buchanan Park and the other on Buffalo Park Road.
Pointing out that ‘it takes a village’ to do all she’s been part of, Connie says, “Collectively, we can do great things.”
Source: Interview with Connie 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.