Profile: Andi Sullivan
By Robert Dilday
She’s not yet 30, but for more than a decade Andi Sullivan has been a key player in the battle to reduce malaria in Africa, where the disease is a leading cause of death, and other high-risk regions around the world. She and her father, former Baptist missionary T Thomas, hatched the idea for His Nets over Christmas break during her freshman year in college, and since then the organization has distributed about 135,000 insecticide-treated mosquito nets — a tool many medical authorities believe is the most cost-effective way to prevent malaria transmission.
During those 10 years Sullivan graduated from college and earned two master’s degrees and, she says, “learned a lot about international development, about Christian social ethics and about what it means to live my faith.” His Nets also has inspired involvement by other groups in fighting malaria, including the Virginia Baptist Mission Board’s More Than Nets project and the Tulsa, Okla.-based Kairos 10.
When we caught up with Sullivan she had just returned from a week in Ghana, where she met with local partners and participated in net distribution and medical clinics.
What influences led you to invest your time in reducing a killer disease?
For me, loving my neighbor means living out Jesus’ words, “I was sick and you took care of me.” According to the New Testament, Jesus spent most of his time teaching, feeding and healing. For centuries, Christian ministers and missionaries have continued to do those same things at home and around the world. Yet despite great advances in medicine, agriculture and philosophy, people in even greater numbers still have those same needs.
For the most part, the need has not changed since Jesus walked the earth. What has changed is that for the first time in human existence, we now have the technology to prevent many diseases that ravage hundreds of millions of lives. Christians today must reclaim the call of the Incarnate God to cure, heal and protect those most at risk of contracting the most common preventable diseases. As a young 21st century Christian, I am interested in how I can live my faith now.
His Nets is based in Oklahoma but you live in Washington. How did that work out?
Well, when my father and I co-founded the organization, my parents and younger sisters were living in Oklahoma. It made sense to establish our non-profit status there. Since His Nets is largely volunteer-driven, I’d say we’re based all over. Our board members are distributed throughout the Southeast. Our donor base stretches across the United States and even includes folks from Canada, England and Australia. And of course, our distribution projects have taken place even farther away in sub-Saharan Africa, India, Burma, Haiti and Pakistan.
Living in D.C., I am surrounded by passionate, challenging and sometimes cynical people. This has forced me to constantly evaluate the work of His Nets through a critical lens. Is this an effective model? Are we reaching vulnerable persons? How does His Nets fit into the greater context of international development?
What have you found most affirming about being involved in battling malaria?
Knowing that these nets will make an im-mediate contribution toward reducing the incidence of malaria. That sounds rather abstract, but what I mean is that this simple tool can protect people vulnerable to malaria right now — this very minute. The nets are simple to install, require minimal training and care and, best of all, they have already been invented.
What’s the hardest challenge you face?
One of the hardest challenges is physically getting nets to distribution sites. The process varies from project to project and country to country. Sometimes the challenge is a lack of supply of nets within the country, while in other cases, the challenge is clearing nets through customs. Often, transportation within the country may involve 10 to 12 hours travel by truck over rough terrain. Each case is different and requires months of preparation.
On a more personal level, one of the hardest challenges is telling persons or groups interested in receiving nets or partnering with us, “no.” His Nets simply doesn’t have the resources to work with every interested group. While we have a wide network of partners and donors, it is not robust enough to support every potential distribution opportunity. His Nets has an established project selection and planning process and the board carefully considers each distribution project. Nonetheless, it’s still not easy to tell someone, “No, His Nets cannot work with you at this time.”
Is there an advantage in addressing issues such as malaria through a single-focused organization like His Nets, rather than as part of a broader mission organization or non- governmental agency?
His Nets has more flexibility to pursue creative distribution approaches than larger operations. For example, His Nets can partner with a group in India that provides sterilized birthing kits to mothers in remote tribal villages to include a bed net with the kits. Or His Nets can discover that an orphanage in Kenya has no way to protect its children from malaria and then quickly respond by allocating general funds to purchase nets for each of the 100 beds in the orphanage. A larger organization would be slower in acting and would also be less likely to focus on such a small project. For His Nets, it’s all about working within each individual context.
What are your goals for His Nets?
Our primary goal is always to get nets into the hands of those who need them most. His Nets will also be standardizing our monitoring and evaluation procedures. We want to be able tobetter communicate our impact. We’re planning to streamline, strengthen and redesign our online presence. This will help us keep in touch with donors and make it easier for people to know what His Nets is up to.
What’s next for you personally?
I’m currently pursuing ordination through Calvary Baptist Church here in D.C. I also have another day job at Partners of the Americas as senior program officer for agriculture and food security.
© 2014 Associated Baptist Press, Inc.