St. Olaf student’s foundation supports families impacted by sickle cell anemia
Tchofor Dick Nchang ’25 was diagnosed with sickle cell anemia, a degenerative disease that leads to a lack of oxygen-rich blood, when he was two years old. After a successful bone marrow transplant in 2016, Nchang was haunted by the idea that thousands more children will be born with sickle cell and experience the same excruciating pain he endured — but will be unable to afford medical treatment.
“It hurts me every time I hear of someone who is passing away from sickle cell or someone who is being born with sickle cell disease,” he says. “Birth and life is something in which we should be happy about when it occurs. It should not be something that comes and is accentuated by this sad feeling of ‘Here is this sick child and we’re all about pain management and damage control.’ It doesn’t have to be that way.”
Motivated by a desire to champion the disease, Nchang founded the Sickle Cell International Foundation in October 2017 in his home country of Cameroon. The organization serves as a support group for sickle cell affected families and aims to improve various aspects of patients’ lifestyles in order to reduce the impact of the disease, including nutrition, hydration, and sleep, among many other factors. The Sickle Cell International Foundation has gained support from organizations such as Turkish Airlines and Maco Rentals, acknowledgment from Melinda Gates, and created partnerships with local hospitals in Cameroon to provide over $60,000 worth of feeding, tests, hospitalizations, and medications free of charge to 124 families and counting.
“We have to get the numbers of sickle cell affected children down to insignificant levels,” Nchang says. “I have gone through this pain, lived this experience, know these people, and come from this place. I know sickle cell can be prevented, and this is what makes me feel strongly compelled to do this work. I acknowledge the fact that I am in a good situation and in a good position, strategically, to lead and effect that change. Every day that I go to bed and wake up, I think about how we can make sure that these people are living better lives and we have less sickle cell children born.”
I have gone through this pain, lived this experience, know these people, and come from this place. I know sickle cell can be prevented, and this is what makes me feel strongly compelled to do this work. I acknowledge the fact that I am in a good situation and in a good position, strategically, to lead and effect that change. Every day that I go to bed and wake up, I think about how we can make sure that these people are living better lives and we have less sickle cell children born.Tchofor Dick Nchang ’25
One of the most important aspects of the organization is community-building. Children and families affected by sickle cell face a lot of stigma due to a lack of research and public knowledge about the disease — specifically, Nchang says, the belief that individuals “can die at any time.” Because of this, many people who suffer from sickle cell choose not to disclose their condition with relatives and friends because “it invokes a type of pity, which is not healthy.” However, in events hosted by the Sickle Cell International Foundation, participants can feel comfortable sharing their experiences and stories unfiltered because everyone has a greater understanding of the struggles individuals living with sickle cell face.
“We’re redefining what it means to be a community to these people. It is so powerful to see the effects it has when you put two or more people living and suffering from sickle cell in the same room. They’re able to connect in a very different way because they come to the realization that they are not alone. They are not suffering from this alone. There’s a certain solace that they find in that,” Nchang says. “We ensure that we organize a lot of these get-togethers where we talk about the disease, we check on each other, and we recognize the improvements we’re experiencing.”
St. Olaf Associate College Pastor Katie Fick got to know Nchang and learned about the Sickle Cell International Foundation during St. Olaf’s daily chapel services. While she had known about sickle cell disease previously, talking to Nchang about his personal experiences with the disease gave her a better understanding of its effects on individuals and communities.
“I learned more about concrete ways to make a difference in the lives of those who are coping with sickle cell. Hearing Dick’s story, and how from his experiences he decided to help others, was also very inspiring,” she says. “In Christianity, the call to love our neighbors is very broad, so I enjoy learning the various, specific ways that people live out this call. Dick is living out his call to love and serve his neighbors by improving the lives of those who live with sickle cell disease.”
The Sickle Cell International Foundation has been moving toward making more data-driven decisions. With the consent of families, the organization collects an enormous wealth of data that is then used to improve operations and add value to sickle cell research in the healthcare space. “We’re not just an advocacy group, we’re an advocacy group in research and academia,” Nchang says. “I feel that’s what helps grow our value and sustenance in the long run.”
However, despite the success of the organization, there have been several challenges, the most prominent being fundraising. Nchang wanted to ensure that the organization had strong financial visibility with pre-established systems that meticulously recorded fund distributions before asking for large-scale donations. Utilizing LinkedIn, Nchang connected with Human Resources Executive Andy Munoz, who helped him create a job description for a volunteer position to assist in revamping the organization’s infrastructure. In total, he received 20 applications from highly regarded institutions that include Deloitte, Digitas North America, University of Hamburg, and NERA Economic Consulting, among others.
“I had so much talent, and the love was so outpouring to see all these people come together to volunteer for this organization,” he says. “The experience has been humbling. There’s so much I’ve learned and grown as a person. When you find yourself in a room where you’re the youngest, where you’re the least educated, least experienced, and you have to lead a team of professionals, it challenges you in ways that you never even thought of. You have to show them your ‘A’ game. It has been quite the growth curve.”
The experience has been humbling. There’s so much I’ve learned and grown as a person. When you find yourself in a room where you’re the youngest, where you’re the least educated, least experienced, and you have to lead a team of professionals, it challenges you in ways that you never even thought of. You have to show them your ‘A’ game. It has been quite the growth curve.Tchofor Dick Nchang ’25
Another challenge Nchang faces is running the organization virtually during his time as a student at St. Olaf. Nchang always knew there would be a period of time where he was away from Cameroon and studying in the U.S., so he established a workflow with several people working on the ground tackling daily tasks such as connecting and checking up on families while he focuses on securing new partnerships and raising funds.
“The reason I’m going to the U.S. to study is because I need the skills. I want to do the work I do in a more professional way,” says Nchang, who is majoring in quantitative economics at St. Olaf. “It wouldn’t make sense if I came to the U.S. and left the organization. I’m here for the organization. It was also a question of how do I ensure that the organization is growing? How do I ensure that my learning is directly benefiting it?”
Nchang attributes his health and success to his faith and strives to pay his good fortune forward to others affected by sickle cell.
“My faith is important. You’ll always find me in the chapel every day during daily chapel praying and singing. The success of my transplant is nothing short of a miracle, and I strongly believe that God gave me this chance and has called me to service in this world,” Nchang says. “In order to be effective at His service, I have to ground my principles in the Word and remain focused. This doesn’t just help me weather the storms of growing an organization but also revises our mission, strategies, approach, and more.”
Fick says Nchang’s work is inspiring for the community. “Dick strives to live out his faith in his daily life, from worship and prayer, to showing respect and care for other students, to loving and serving by working through the Sickle Cell International Foundation, and countless other ways,” Fick says.
In terms of future plans, Nchang is positioning the organization to be “at the heart and center of every conversation that happens about sickle cell both at the national and the global level.” While they are currently operating out of Cameroon and South Africa, Nchang plans for the Sickle Cell International Foundation to grow into a global health organization that conducts research, creates products, owns hospitals and clinics, and partakes in many different aspects of healthcare. He plans to get a master’s degree in health/business administration and use entrepreneurship to create more equitable healthcare.
“I’m really looking forward to meeting a lot of people who can join hands and come together in making this work. Be it with expertise, a network connection or two, a donation, I’m ready to have a conversation. I’m ready to talk. Anything that is going to take this movement a step further, I’m really ready to entertain,” Nchang says. “I just want to get things moving and also make sure I’m nourishing myself physically, emotionally, and spiritually to be able to take on these hard challenges.”