On April 18, 2007 a gift came to CARE's office from Lapeer, Michigan attorneys representing the estate of Helen Linehan. Attached to the paperwork was a note from her niece, Carol Arena, which read "My Aunt Helen B. Linehan spent time in Africa in the 1980's and became concerned with the lack of clean water available for the children. She is leaving what she can as a bequest to CARE for the purpose of helping that cause...."
I knew that Helen had been faithful to CARE for 16 years and was especially responsive to worldwide emergencies. A few years ago she had contacted one of my colleagues for some creative options concerning a donation to CARE from her estate.
Naturally I was intrigued that Helen's legacy had so touched her family that her niece Carol took it upon herself to write us a note which described how her Aunt's legacy might best be used. Therefore, I placed a call to Carol so that we could work together to find a suitable project for helping the women and children of Mali, and so she could tell me what Helen had taught her. The following are Carol's words which paint the picture of a loving, complex and fascinating woman and which so clearly illustrate the path that led to her ultimate gift.
My aunt Helen was very close to her mother [my grandmother], and they were both very active with the Little Sisters of Charity in St. Paul, Helen Line han Minnesota. I think her service with the Little Sisters is what ultimately motivated her and her sister to go into nursing. So when the call for help was issued during WWII both of them went into the nursing field in order to serve their country. My aunt got involved in psychiatric nursing and got her doctorate in psychology. That became her specialty. After she graduated from University in Seattle she went into psychiatric hospital administration.
As young nursing graduates somewhere around 1942 Aunt Helen and my Mother volunteered for the Red Cross and they were stationed in Arizona at an Indian reservation. They came from a lineage of pioneer women; their mother and grandmother had traveled in covered wagon from Colorado. The next year because of the war each of them joined a different armed service. My Aunt Helen was a Lieutenant in the Navy. My aunt did not get to leave the USA and was very unhappy about this. They kept her stateside as a trainer instead; she never forgave the Navy for this.
In 1957 my Aunt Helen took a job at the Lapeer State Home and Training School in Michigan. She decided she would take this job because she saw that the children were sleeping on the floor and they weren't allowed to have spoons and forks.
Although she had many other job opportunities, she was convinced she could do the most good here. It was under the Kennedy administration when recognition of the developmentally disabled population was awakening. Aunt Helen felt it a priviledge to be able to lend her expertise to this cause. She really revamped the school's whole caregiving process for these children. Ultimately due to my aunt's efforts, these children became happy, functioning adults. All of her heart was into her job and she was very well respected. She was also a very stern taskmaster and her nurses admired her for it.
This is what she did most of her whole life. She was at Lapeer for about 30 years until her retirement. It was then my Aunt and my Mother started traveling. For some reason, Africa had been a long time goal. Both of them had a very deep desire in their hearts to go to Africa. When they were both in their sixties they made their first visit to Nigeria, the Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania and Mozambique.
They traveled in a large Jeep with about 15 people for four months. During this trek they would often be welcomed into peoples' homes. Families would share their huts with them; I think the fact that they were older women may have been why there was so much interest and respect from the people they visited. My Aunt Helen and my Mom felt very close to the people and felt loved and accepted there. They were included in everything that went on within the communities they visited.
Five years later they went on such a trip again to eastern Africa staying for 6 months this time. I remember them telling us that part of their daily life was to sweep out the gigantic bugs from the jeep they traveled and slept in. "No way!" was my response, how can they be having fun? It was more than bugs to them; they loved the animals, the unspoiled terrain and the hearts of the people.
In Africa, Aunt Helen was astounded by the generosity of the people. She always talked about the children and how far they had to carry water every day. Helen said, "Let me help them, if they can, to get water closer to them, to where they live." She was stunned by how hard they worked for the smallest things in life, things like water that we all take for granted. They were giving Helen and my Mother water and Helen would always graciously accept it. She always sought a deeper understanding of people. She didn't have the patience for "them that had". The people, who loved her dearly, loved her because she was a straight shooter and gave what was given. If you gave her respect, you receive it ten fold. If you wasted her time and disregarded her, she would put you straight. Stubborn? Yes, a bit. She wasn't a sweet kind of person. But if you were her friend and you needed her, she was there for you. She would give strength to carry on and help you put into perspective what was troubling you. She grew up in a family and a community that didn't have a lot by some standards but had plenty of what they needed.
Aunt Helen's pioneer spirit did not end with her travels. Now, Helen's ultimate gift, a bequest to aid The Kenya Ciwara Project in Mali, allows an ongoing gift to those who do not have, which will allow them to become those who do have. Helen's bequest enables them to have effective health services, clean water.... and best of all, to help the people in Mali learn to demand and expect quality health care services.