In February 2014, the Dalai Lama hosted an event called Unsung Heroes of Compassion, which honors individuals who set examples for compassion in action around the world. The event has been held four times since 2000, and this year College of Arts and Sciences alumna Susan Dix Lyons was among the honorees.
Dix Lyons graduated from the American University with a BA in literature in 1989 and after more than a decade as a journalist went on to found Clinica Verde, a sustainably designed clinic for families living in poverty in rural Nicaragua. Dix Lyons was inspired by the stories of her grandparent's travels in Latin America as part of her grandfather's work with the Inter American Press Association. When she learned about a local group near her California home that was building homes for the poor in Nicaragua, she was drawn back to the stories of her grandparents and her own experience as a young journalist in Central America many years before.
Nicaragua is the second poorest country in Latin America and has the highest rate of adolescent fertility. One in four pregnancies occurs to a teen mother, while one in five children is chronically malnourished. Dix Lyons selected Nicaragua as the site for the first clinic both because of her personal connection to the country and the relationships she has formed with the local community.
The clinic opened in January 2012 after four years of fundraising, designing, and building and now serves more than 14,000 patients annually. The clinic provides women's health services such as prenatal care, health education, and cervical cancer screenings; children's healthcare including wellness visits, immunizations and nebulizations; adolescent healthcare and sexual reproductive health education; care for adults including disease care, counseling and nutrition education. The clinic also has a pharmacy and is raising money to open an on-site laboratory.
“We take a preventive approach to healthcare,” Dix Lyons says. “Providing not just clinical care but nutrition and health education in an environment designed to promote positive health outcomes.”
In March 2014, the clinic started to partner with Global Student Embassy on a biointensive garden, which will be used as a demonstration farm and tool for teaching nutrition to the families and local schools the clinic serves.
“We aim to change the way communities see and think about their health,” Dix Lyons says, “addressing wellbeing as a set of linked behaviors that support the physical, emotional, and spiritual person through a dynamic, preventive approach integrated within communities.”
Unsung Heroes of Compassion
The 2014 Unsung Heroes of Compassion event honored 51 individuals from around the world who “work to alleviate the suffering of others without expectation of reward.”
Meeting the Dalai Lama was at once humbling and inspiring for Dix Lyons.
“It was a heightened call to action: a reminder that there's so much more work to be done,” Dix Lyons says. “It was also great just to connect and get to know the other honorees – a global community of people who are all working hard to do what they can to improve conditions for those who might otherwise be left behind.”
This new call to action will be the stepping stone for Clinica Verde’s optimistic future.
“We're at a stage now where we're exploring how we can expand our impact,” Dix Lyons says. “Whether through helping to design and build other health hubs such as ours, developing as a site for training and education, social franchising – or even bringing our model to underserved areas in the U.S. We're looking for experienced partners and people with big visions.”
Her Time at AU
Dix Lyons says American University shaped the path she has followed.
“I had incredible professors who encouraged and inspired me, and I developed friendships with people who influenced my values and ambitions in a very positive way,” Dix Lyons says. “There was an activist culture while I was there that allowed us to really engage with the things we cared about. We were passionate and excited to contribute and find a sense of purpose, and we had a lot of fun. I left AU ready to take on big challenges.”
Dix Lyons credits her literature degree with introducing her to new perspectives, ideas, and passions that affected how she approaches every challenge she faces. It also provided the basis for her communications skills, which she still practices by way of short perspective pieces that she records for KQED in San Francisco. She also teaches Media and Social Innovation as an adjunct professor at Pacific Union College in Angwin, California.
Her Advice to Students
“Do things,” Dix Lyons says. “Say yes to every opportunity to grow. Approach each task, however small, with a sense of dedication and excellence. Face your fears. Throw yourself out there, and don't give up on your vision for a better world in which you play a critical part.”
“I think we're each designed to serve an important role in life. Be open to discovering it - and realize that the path to finding your purpose is rarely a straight line. And, of course, cherish your partner and family. Their love will sustain you during the inevitable defeats.”