St. John’s University graduate brings much-needed health care to the Central African Republic


Despite a global pandemic and an armed rebellion, Ted Hooley wouldn’t give up on his vision to build a health clinic in the Central African Republic.

The Stillwater native and St. John’s University graduate knew he wanted to use his skills to help underserved people in developing countries. But he didn’t always know how that would look. Maybe he would work abroad as a consultant for a country’s ministry of health — a job he tried while completing his graduate degree in global human development at Georgetown University.

After working in Liberia and Sierra Leone during the Ebola crisis, Hooley realized his calling wasn’t in consulting. It was on the ground in communities.

“There’s nothing that beats being in a village with people and just making that person-to-person connection,” said Hooley, 33. “That’s what really gives me energy.”

In 2016, Hooley laid the groundwork for his humanitarian health nonprofit, Senitizo, (senitizo.org) which was officially incorporated in 2017. The name translates to “the health of the people” in Sango, the primary language of the Central African Republic.

Armed conflict, civil unrest and COVID-19 delayed the launch by nearly a year, but Senitizo opened its first health clinic a few months ago in a remote village about two hours from the capital of Bangui. Its focus is primary care and community health, with an emphasis on maternal and child care.

The clinic employs a doctor, nurse, nurse’s aide, pharmacist, community health worker, hygienist and two guards. Hooley said he hopes to hire a midwife in the fall.

It provides pre- and postnatal consultations along with delivery services. Staffers work to prevent mothers from getting malaria while pregnant and treat bacterial diseases that can dehydrate children and cause malaria which, if untreated, can lead to death.

The clinic aims to serve about 40 people a day, but some days are extremely busy with more than 100 patients arriving for care. Some are from African Pygmy tribes; they live deep in the rainforest and walk for miles to reach the clinic.

Hooley expects that as word of the clinic spreads, people from neighboring Congo and the Democratic Republic of the Congo might start journeying across the border to receive health care. He wants to make sure the clinic has enough capacity to treat everyone who shows up seeking care.

“The last thing we want is people to be sick, travel a long distance and then [we] have to say, ‘Hey, we don’t have room, we’re overflowing,’ ” Hooley said. He also wants to avoid a scenario where people camp outside the clinic, due to safety and hygiene issues.

On days when Hooley visits the clinic, he and his team in Bangui wake up early to pack cars with medicine and equipment. They then begin their journey out of the city and into the rural countryside. They drive with the windows down, so they’re able to greet villagers along their way.

Once they reach the clinic, Hooley can always hear the voices of women singing as they come in from the fields to greet the team. Usually within 15 minutes of their arrival, anywhere from 30 to 100 villagers gather around the clinic to say hello to Hooley and other Senitizo staffers.

“Those are my favorite days,” Hooley said.

Hooley, the grandson of a Cub Foods co-founder, doesn’t draw a salary from Senitizo because it’s not a “practical” use of the nonprofit’s money right now, he said.

In the future, he hopes to build more clinics in other parts of the country and also acquire reliable transportation to get critically ill patients to a hospital more quickly. There’s already a plan to acquire a maternity ambulance that can transport patients to Bangui if needed, he said.

A global citizen

Hooley embodies the term “global citizen.” He lives primarily in Bangui and only returns to the United States to fundraise for six to eight weeks a year. (To donate, go to senitizo.org/donate.)

During the pandemic, though, travel restrictions kept him stateside for the better part of eight months, and he lived with his parents in Golden, Colo. His father, Mike Hooley, said Ted wasn’t always as adventurous as he is now.

“We’d go to Disney World or Epcot and he would kind of lay back; he wouldn’t necessarily do all the rides or that kind of thing,” Mike Hooley said.

“It’s hilarious that, now that he’s grown up, he’s going all over the world and doing things that I wouldn’t even think of doing. It’s an amazing switch-around.”

Mike said he and his wife, Amy, are extremely proud of their son, but worry sometimes about his safety while he’s living abroad.

“Ted tries to protect his mom and dad,” Mike said with a chuckle. “He found his purpose in life, and when your son or daughter finds that, you don’t want to get in the way of it.”

Parker Wheatley, Hooley’s former economics professor, asked Hooley to speak to his class last fall about his work with Senitizo. Hooley told the students that he started the nonprofit after Wheatley, one of his closest mentors, encouraged him to do so. Wheatley doesn’t quite remember it that way.

“I probably did encourage him not to wait for somebody to give him the opportunity, that he should go and take those opportunities to do what he believes he needs to do,” said Wheatley, a professor of economics at the College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University.

“That’s something I would tell a lot of students.”

Hooley is aware that humanitarian workers sometimes get branded as “white saviors” — white people who provide help to nonwhite people in a self-righteous or self-serving manner. But Hooley says it depends on how you approach the work. Senitizo puts Central Africans at the center of its work, both as providers and beneficiaries, he said.

“You know when someone’s being exploitative when you see it,” he said. “You’ve always got to make it not about yourself, but about the people you’re serving.”

Maya Miller • 612-673-7086

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