Like his organization's namesake, Harold Robles shares Albert Schweitzer's reverence for life
Business New Haven
By: Isabelle Gould
Harold Robles' career is living proof of the adage, Never underestimate the power of ideas.
A native of Suriname (the former Dutch Guinea) and an American citizen since 1990, Robles became a devotee of Albert Schweitzer's ideals when he was eight years old. As a schoolboy in Amsterdam, he learned about the doctor and his humanitarian works from a favorite teacher. The more he read and learned about the wide spectrum of Schweitzer's concerns, the more determined he became to help achieve his goals.
Today, as founder and president of the Albert Schweitzer Institute for the Humanities, a non-profit, non-governmental organization with consultative status to the United Nations, Robles has dedicated his life to preserving the great humanitarian's reverence for life by initiating international, national and local programs in health care, the environment, music and the arts, theology and ethics, human rights and global security.
As a youth, Robles corresponded with Schweitzer and his staff and in 1969 visited the hospital at Lambarene in the West African county of Gabon. Translating Schweitzer's ideas into action became his life's ambition. In 1973, he founded the International Albert Schweitzer Center in the Netherlands, a clearinghouse for students and scholars seeking publications and archival information on the doctor's life, philosophy and ethics. Two years later he was appointed secretary general of the International Albert Schweitzer Organization, coordinating fundraising and recruiting medical staff for the Schweitzer hospital. It also established an International Albert Schweitzer Symposium in the Netherlands and other international gatherings in Europe.
Emigrating to the United States in 1981, Robles became executive director of the Connecticut chapter of the American Red Cross and later vice president and managing director of an international marketing research company. But he spent virtually all of his free time collecting equipment to send to Lambarene and talking about Schweitzer's work with doctors, business people and health-care providers.
In 1984, with the blessing of his friend Rhea Schweitzer Miller, Schweitzer's only child, he established the Albert Schweitzer Memorial Foundation with headquarters in his basement. His efforts attracted volunteers who helped to organize a series of lectures about the doctor's work and present awards in the fields of Schweitzer's interest. Well-known specialists in the arts, the humanities and the sciences also learned of his work.
In 1990, the foundation and its cadre of volunteers organized a two-day colloquium commemorating the 25th anniversary of Schweitzer's death, the largest private event ever held at the U.N. More than 1,000 people came from around the world to reaffirm the basic right of our earth and its inhabitants to co-exist in peace, in health and in safety, according to Robles.
Following this event, a benefactor who had been following the foundation's development offered to pay the salaries of Robles and an assistant. When Robles decided to devote all his time to the foundation, the organization evolved into the Albert Schweitzer Institute for the Humanities (ASIH), Members of its board of directors have included Oscar Arias, former president of Costa Rica, the late Linus Pauling and Jane Goodall.
Recognized as a non-governmental member of the U.N., the Institute receives no funding from governments and doesn't vote in the U.N. But its advice is actively sought by agencies in the international body.
The institute works with businesses, banks and governments at their request, serving as a clearinghouse to facilitate programs for humanitarian aid and health needs in countries in need, says Robles. Our successes have given us the credibility, the expertise and the know-how to undertake projects at home and abroad.
Demands for new programs and activities saddled volunteers with more than they could handle. A turning point in the institute's history came in 1992, when it held another symposium at the U.N. on ethical solutions for environmental problems. Robles visited Eastern Europe, including the former Yugoslavia, Albania and Moldova.
Taking an activist stance on problems of pressing human needs, the institute collaborated with the Soros Foundation and Nubenco Enterprises to airlift millions of dollars of medicine, medical equipment, clothing, school supplies and toys to victims of ethnic war in the former Yugoslavia. In 1993, under the auspices of an ongoing program within the institute, Bosnian children in need of medical attention were brought to the U.S. for treatment. More than 30 children have come to this country to receive pro bono medical attention in hospitals in Connecticut, New York and Boston.
The institute is now headquartered in Wallingford, and its activities are funded by gifts and grants. With a full-time staff of seven, it has brought humanitarian aid to countries in South and Central America and Eastern Europe. It conducts ongoing outreach programs on health care, the environment and human rights through conferences and seminars in war-torn and underdeveloped areas throughout the world.
For example, health professionals in Yugoslavia have not been able to obtain medical books or journals on the latest developments in the treatment of cerebral palsy. In December 1994 the Schweitzer Institute, the Soros Foundation and the Belgrade Center for Cerebral Palsy & Developmental Neurology sent leading experts from the U.S. and Russia to Belgrade to conduct clinical seminars on current approaches to the diagnosis and treatment of cerebral palsy, including procedures for the integration and use of technology.
Enthusiastic response led to another seminar in Belgrade on neurological problems in children, and further conferences are planned in the fields of cardiology and pain management.
Other projects currently in the work include helping a medical school in Moldova revise its curriculum, creating an international databank for specialists in internal medicine, surgery, pediatrics, anesthesiology and OB-GYN to register with the ASIH to lecture or practice from a few months to a year in countries in need of their skills and, at the request of the Inter-American Development Bank and the Ministry of Health, establishing the medical and administrative infrastructure of a hospital being built in Suriname.
The Schweitzer Institute's activities are not confined to international programs: Issues of national and local concern are also addressed.
For three years, annual Global Perspectives Conferences have been held, including hands-on environmental workshops for middle- and high school students. A Sense of Wonder Camp provides an opportunity for young people of all backgrounds to come together to use reverence for life as a framework within which to discuss contemporary issues. Throughout Connecticut ,the Good Neighbor Food & Clothing Drive each December assists the homeless in meeting their food and clothing needs. A Reverence for Life Commendation, as well as awards in the arts and music, are given each year, and study groups meet to discuss theological and ethical issues.
At Yale, the institute hosts an annual International Albert Schweitzer Lecture. Past speakers have included Bishop Desmond Tutu, Benjamin Hooks and former president Arias. Prince Albert of Liechtenstein, founder of the Academy for the Study of the Future, spoke last month.
Dr. Schweitzer's approach to helping people was simple, says Robles. Do whatever you can, start wherever you can, create an island of peace, and work outward.
As the institute's second decade begins, Robles describes his own philosophy in equally simple terms: Respect one another and, above all, give some of yourself to others.
In a national competition sponsored by Merrill-Lynch this year, Robles was a finalist in Southern New England for Entrepreneur of the Year in the category of heads of socially responsible institutions. Robles didn't win, but his nomination is a tribute to his organizational skills and determination to preserve Schweitzer's legacy.