Margaret Larson: Back From Africa with Purpose

Posted: March 15, 2012 in employment, journalism

KING 5’s Margaret Larson is home again.

Larson has just returned from Africa and says, she’s “very excited about the progress of our on-the-ground partners.” Larson tells me what she saw over in Africa was “very moving and enlightening” as she learned more from families there about what cancer is like in their world, especially for children.

The New Day Northwest host has a simple question, “How much would you spend to save one African child’s life?” Larson has found the simple answer – around $450.

Samuel, a boy in the Burkitt’s ward at a hospital in Kisumu, Kenya 2009.

Larson says cancer kills more people worldwide than AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria combined, adding that it’s not just an African problem. “It’s a global issue”, she says. But Africa is where her new non-profit volunteer work for Burkitt’s Lymphoma Fund for Africa (BLFA)

Margaret Larson with Burkitt’s patient, Rosemary and her aunt – March, 2012 – Kisumu, Kenya is taking place. It’s also where a journalist like Larson, 54, has found a new purpose.

“The problem”, says Dr. Corey Casper, of Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, (referring to Africa) is that cancer is still perceived as too expensive to treat. Some childhood cancers, such as Burkitt’s lymphoma, cost as little as around $500 to cure, with success rates of 95%. It costs $300 per month for life to keep someone on ARVs (the drugs used for HIV), so a one-off, $500 to treat a child seems like money well-spent.” Larson says the international community also dictates the agenda to a certain extent. Uganda receives $200 million annually from the United States for HIV treatment, but less than a $1 million for cancer. The Hutch is an active partner with BLFA.

Margaret Larson has hosted New Day Northwest on KING 5, since March, 2010. Seattle is the nation’s 13th-largest media market.

From 1992 to 1993, Larson hosted NBC’s Today Show and worked as a correspondent for NBC Dateline. She also anchored at Seattle’s KIRO TV from 1994 to 1997.

Larson has been doing non-profit work since 2004 when she served as VP of Communications for Portland-based Mercy Corps’s also done work for Federal Way-based World Vision, Seattle’s PATH and Global Partnerships But she says, “I’ve always been speaking for someone else.”

At BLFA, where she serves as a member of the Board of Directors, she says, “This is the first time I’ve had a chance to vote on decisions about mission, finances and accountability as opposed to simply being a freelancer who’s consulting or creating a video. It’s about saving the lives of little kids.” Larson says 100 percent of what people give goes to program, to funding treatment.Larson says the other BLFA board directors are business executives, medical experts, financial minds, “and me, a communicator.”

BLFA started after a PATH trip to Kenya in 2009. Larson visited a hospital commissioned by former U.S. Senator Barrack Obama, in Kisumu, Kenya, near Obama’s father’s hometown. At the hospital, Margaret saw “dramatic” tumors, the result of Burkitt’s Lymphoma, a form of cancer very rare in the United States. Symptoms are tumors in the head and jaw area and sometimes in the abdomen. It’s the most common form of childhood cancer found in Africa. “The thing that stunned us all”, recalls Larson, “is that we were told that all the kids we saw would die, every one of them, in a matter of weeks. And yet it’s completely treatable.

Her inspiration in this venture, Seattle’s Miriam Sevy, who was also in the hospital that day. Sevy is the creator and now President of Burkitt’s Lymphoma Fund for Africa,, and a high-level financial consultant. “Miriam just thought of her own son, Adam and that was that.”

“Burkitt’s Lymphoma Fund for Africa is about educating physicians and caregivers in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania, funding treatment and removing barriers to family’s seeking ” says Larson. She’s over there in sub-Saharan Africa right now, checking on how money’s being spent and how well goals are being met.
BFLA member Miriam Sevy with young friend, Nairobi 2009

Larson with Erica Sessle from Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center Uganda, March 2012. Hutch program received a grant from BLFA

“Sometimes it feels like you’re pushing a rock up a hill when you think about the challenges in the world. You see these problems are so big but this project represents something I can do.” Now, she says, “I have a sense of ownership that I hope will last the rest of my life.”

Larson with recent guest, World Vision’s Michele Tvedt from 30 Hour Famine.

“At my core, I’m a foreign correspondent,” says the former NBC Nightly News and NBC Dateline correspondent.“It’s what I wanted to do when I was little,” says Margaret. “As a journalist,” she says, “it matters to us what’s true. But often we fail to apply it to ourselves. When I was in news, Larson says, “My inside and my outside didn’t always match.” Doing this work with BLFA is, “me matching my inside and my outside.”

Larson says there are probably two ways to grow the organization; major gifts and grants or donations (like Girl Scouts or PTA’s). So far Larson says they’ve gone after major gifts. But Larson is also using the popularity of KING 5’s New Day Northwest, Margaret explains the simple ‘ask’. “Send us a hand towel and a bar of soap and we’ll make sure someone gets it.” Viewers wrote notes to African children living with Burkitt’s Lymphoma. “The goal was to give viewers something they could do. It was a ‘my hand to your hand’, thing.” That, she says, “was crucial in creating a meaningful connection.”

Larson is posting from the New Day Northwest’s Facebook page and sending back video from Africa. KING 5, she says has ‘bought in’. The time to take the trip was written into her KING 5 contract. “I didn’t want to give international volunteer work up,” says Larson. She adds, “management gets that.”

Larson says BLFA is an exhilarating project. As for being a “re-purposed” journalist? Margaret Larson says “Re-purposing isn’t recycling. I’m finding my new purpose. And I feel a lot smarter today.”

Margaret Larson New-Day

Margaret Larson’s Tips for Re-purposing Yourself as a Journalist:

1. Find out what you really care about.

2. Find something that has permanence.

3. Don’t underestimate your skills like critical thinking.

  1. Larry Short says:

    John, your blog definitely rocks! Margaret is inspiring, and you really captured her story well.

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