A lifelong journey from the Valley to Africa


By Andrew Veihmeyer

Sheila van der Smissen first heard about WAVS through her drum instructor, Mamady Kourouma, a West Africa immigrant who had performed at a WAVS benefit concert in Fresno, California. What attracted Sheila to WAVS was the longevity of the mission and the fact that the school was run by African teachers.

Even though WAVS is a small organization, Sheila said, it has a visible impact on students. She said she felt connected to the students through stories she heard about them.

 “That’s why I want to support WAVS,” said Sheila, who has been a donor since 2011.

Born in Dinuba, she later attended Fresno State University to become a clinical laboratory scientist, receiving her BS in Biology. After graduating, she was anxious to explore the world.

In 1975, Sheila went on a trip to Kenya and Tanzania to see the animals that were being threatened by big-game hunters. Later, this passion for the continent’s wildlife developed into a heart for the people of Africa. She conducted lab testing to promote better health for the local people and contributed to medical research in Sudan for 12 years. The experience changed her life.

“My heart is still in Africa,” she said.

Sheila met her first husband in Sudan and gave birth to her daughter in the capital city, Khartoum.

Since then, Sheila has looked for opportunities to improve the health conditions of people in Africa. She has participated in projects in Ethiopia and in Malawi, working with medical experts in the field of clinical lab research.

She and her teams started their projects by showing local people how to conduct clinical tests for malaria patients.

“And since then, they have taken over the training,” Sheila said.

She says her time in Africa has given her a fresh perspective on her abundant life in America. Among those she met during her travels was their houseboy who would take care of them and, at the end of each day, go outside to sleep in his tent. In spite of many losses and tragedies in his family, he still seemed to be happy, Sheila said.

“Even if I’m having a bad day, it would be an enviable day for them,” she said.

Sheila, who received her MBA from Fresno State University in 1991, currently works in clinical information systems for Kaiser Permanente in Fresno. Outside of work, Sheila enjoys her hobbies on her Auberry farmland growing fruits, vegetables, raising poultry, and most recently, beekeeping.

Andrew Veihmeyer is an intern with West African Vocational Schools. You can contact him at info@WAVSchools.org.