Empathy drives alumna in global health adventures

When asked where she finds time for fun, Rachel Svetanoff ’15 M.S. laughed. 

It’s not that she thought the question was funny, per se. She wasn’t shrugging it off. It was more the idea that the perpetually busy global health professional — who, on top of her day job as Programs Lead for Johnson & Johnson’s CaringCrowd fundraising platform that helps nonprofits realize their global health projects, also serves on the boards of nonprofits JB Dondolo, the Consortium for Health, and Student Pugwash USA, among other pursuits — wasn’t already having a good time.

“This is fun!” Svetanoff said of her work. “It is genuinely enjoyable and it is so rewarding to be able to help other individuals. This is what I live for and what I wake up to do every day.”

Service has always been in Svetanoff’s blood. Starting as a volunteer in primary school and through her church, her witness to underserved and marginalized communities guided her education and career goals. As an undergraduate studying chemistry at Purdue University, she hosted a global health conference, designed to not only bring focus to the issue, but to guide her own education on the topic. That experience led her to Notre Dame’s Eck Institute for Global Health, where she earned her master’s in 2015.

Notre Dame’s program — an intensive one-year curriculum with an emphasis on research — resonated with Svetanoff and her scientific background. She participated in two graduate research projects with the program: one in medicinal analytical chemistry investigating challenges of low-quality pharmaceuticals in Kenya, the other in infectious disease epidemiology assessing past Ebola epidemics to improve outbreak management. 

Her experience in South Bend presented other opportunities, too.

“Throughout the year I [encountered] so many world-changing perspectives,” she says. “The experience was immeasurable. It was truly amazing. … I had never been on an airplane prior to Notre Dame’s global health program. So, Notre Dame transformed not just who I was professionally, but even personally, gaining life experience like getting on an airplane, a passenger train, and even a kayak!”

Following graduation, Svetanoff volunteered for a year with Student Pugwash — which promotes social responsibility and ethics in science and technology — and in the fall of 2016 returned to Purdue to pursue her M.B.A. at the Krannert School of Management. She interned at Johnson & Johnson on its Environment, Health, Safety and Sustainability team during that time and was introduced to CaringCrowd. Launched in 2015, CaringCrowd has raised more than $3.9 million in donations and matching funds to projects that contribute to 13 of 17 of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.

One such beneficiary is JB Dondolo, a nonprofit founded by Lumbie Mlambo that serves impoverished communities in Zimbabwe and the United States, providing access to clean water, sanitation and hygiene. Svetanoff met Mlambo when interviewing her about the organization’s work and the impact of the CaringCrowd platform, and was so struck by its mission that she asked to become involved. She joined the board as a director in 2020, and is now overseeing a three-year strategic plan for the organization and its research program.

JB Dondolo’s recently concluded Music for Water competition — a fundraising campaign leveraging the medium of music to benefit Navajo Nation and other communities that experience barriers to clean water during the pandemic — is key to that strategy, as is its current initiative, Water for Widows. The campaign is based in Matobo Hills, Zimbabwe, and aimed at providing access to clean water for a rural community of 6,000, mainly women and girls. The project is currently in its water collection phase, where water samples will be tested and assessed for needs such as filtration.

“On average, women spend 3.7 miles walking to the nearest water source, and these women are walking nine miles,” Svetanoff explains. “If they don’t have access to clean water, girls don’t get to stay in school and it contributes to a cycle of poverty overall that can be alleviated through access to basic necessities like food, water, sanitation and hygiene.”

Svetanoff’s compassion for the people she serves is not abstract. She intimately understands the needs of many of the people impacted by the organizations she serves. At 19, her father passed away, leaving her family without the financial security he had provided. They experienced homelessness, a lack of access to healthcare, and food insecurity, and that period deeply informs Svetanoff’s connection to her work.

“It was a lot to go through all at once so I empathize with and have compassion for others who have experienced the same thing,” she says. “It could be in different countries, but global health isn’t just about working internationally. It’s about transcending those borders. … Working with marginalized communities and underserved areas is very much at the cornerstone of who I am personally and professionally. I can’t say if I could change it I would because I wouldn’t be who I am today. While I cannot change the past, a part of me is glad for it because my past is my truth. It’s my lived experience, but I can live in the present to make a better future for those around me.”

Since joining the CaringCrowd team in September 2020, Svetanoff has overseen the success of over 50 fundraising campaigns totalling nearly $300,000. She has also led CaringCrowd’s efforts to create cross-sector partnerships including Indiana-based organizations such as Timmy Global Health and Purdue’s Department of Public Health. She hopes to forge a similar partnership with the Eck Institute for Global Health in the near future in which Notre Dame students could gain experience in fundraising, research and project implementation.

“I’m hoping something really productive can come of that,” Svetanoff said. “The funding is there [at CaringCrowd] and there's the potential for learning to develop more local partnerships with on-the-ground communities, because Notre Dame is really good at that. Regardless of sector , Notre Dame has that down to a science in a way that’s helpful for everybody. My training from the Eck Institute for Global Health has been instrumental to my success today. That is a guarantee, no doubt about that.”

Originally published by Joanne Norell at weare.nd.edu on March 01, 2021.