Cablegate: Ronald Mcdonald House Charities Visits Latvia

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1. SUMMARY. At the invitation of Ambassador Bailey, a three-person
team from Ronald McDonald House Charities (RMHC) visited Latvia July
24-28. The team visited a number of hospitals and orphanages to
assess the quality of care and look for possible areas of
cooperation. They also met with representatives from the local
business and philanthropic communities to learn about charitable
giving in Latvia and gauge the depth of possible support for a local
RMHC chapter. The Embassy received very positive feedback from
participants, and the establishment of a chapter is quite possible
although no specific decisions have been made at this point.
According to RMHC reps, this was the first time an Embassy organized
their visit and it provided them with useful access they might not
otherwise have had. The visit also provided a useful context to
discuss and promote the further development of Latvian charitable
endeavors. END SUMMARY

2. RMHC, the charitable arm of the McDonald's corporation, is a
global children's charity represented in forty-nine countries.
RMHC's goal is to improve the health and well-being of children
through several core programs. These include: the signature Ronald
McDonald House, which provides a "home away from home" for families
of seriously ill children receiving treatment at a nearby hospital;
and a Mobile Care Unit that brings health care services to children
in underserved areas.

3. On July 24-28, 2006, RMHC Senior Director Janet Burton, RMHC
Trustee John Falletta, and Special Projects Manager Laurel Schumm
visited Latvia at the invitation of Ambassador Bailey to assess the
situation of children's health care and social welfare. The team
visited Riga Children's Hospital and the Dardedze center for
children who suffered from violence. They also met with pediatric
doctors, philanthropists, business leaders and government officials,
as well as toured orphanages in the eastern part of Latvia.
President of the American Chamber of Commerce in Latvia, Jerry
Wirth, accompanied the group to many of these events.

4. Latvia has only one specialized children's hospital. The Riga
Children's hospital is located in Riga, but treats patients from all
over the country. It is a sprawling complex of buildings in various
stages of renovation. While the hospital has fairly modern
equipment, it lacks resources for less essential needs.

5. During informal meetings over dinner and at a philanthropic
roundtable discussion with well-known Latvian philanthropists, the
team learned that charitable giving in Latvia is still in its
infancy, but has made some progress in the past few years. Local
businesses are looking to improve their image through charity and
are beginning to understand corporate social responsibility and its
role in a democratic society. Significantly, three out of four
roundtable participants were foreign-born Latvians who have returned
to Latvia and now serve as role models in social responsibility.
Latvian philanthropists agreed that establishing trust is among the
key challenges to Latvian charity work, as Latvians still remember
scandals in early 1990s, when a considerable amount of foreign
technical assistance was used for personal gain.

6. In order to understand the business environment and to gauge
private sector interest in supporting a RMHC Chapter in Latvia, the
RMHC team met with Latvian Economics Minister Aigars Stokenbergs and
a group of local and American company representatives, including
Johnson and Johnson, Eli Lilly, and Coca-Cola. The participants
expressed strong interest in an RMHC chapter. The team was
particularly pleased to receive a pledge of approximately 25,000 USD
from one of the companies.

7. An overnight trip to Latgale, Latvia's Eastern region bordering
Russia, was an insightful experience both for the team and the
Embassy representatives. Latgale is the most depressed region of
Latvia, with unemployment rates as high as 25 percent compared to
6.3 percent national average. Despite this underdevelopment, the
orphanages that the team visited were in reasonably good condition.
The team also visited a regional hospital that was recently rebuilt
and appeared adequate, though doctors there confirmed that they
refer more difficult pediatric cases to Riga Children's Hospital.

8. A particularly inspiring success story on this trip was Grasi
Children's Village, a privately run orphanage that accepts children
with developmental disorders. Its charismatic French founder is
using non-traditional methods both in caring for the children and
raising money for the orphanage. One if the orphanage's most recent
projects is a "children's farm" where children will interact with
animals and receive a form of developmental therapy through such

9. Towards the end of the RMHC visit, the team met with Latvian
Minister of Health Gundars Berzins and Parliamentary Speaker Ingrida
Udre. These representatives reassured the team that the GOL is
committed to improving children's welfare. Moreover, the Minister
of Health gave a personal promise to intervene if RMHC projects in
Latvia need legislative support.

10. The RMHC visit showed that there is strong local support for a

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RMHC Chapter in Latvia. The visit also confirmed a need for family
accommodations that would allow parents from outside Riga to stay
with their children undergoing treatment at Riga Children's
Hospital. At the same time, the RMHC team cautioned that, within the
Latvian context, it would be better to slowly build up a
chapter--starting with smaller projects and then moving to more
ambitious goals such as creating a Ronald McDonald House. The
discussions with pediatric doctors and social workers confirmed the
need for a Mobile Care Unit that could provide not only basic health
care to children in underserved regions, but also educate parents
about medical treatment options for their children. According to
the team, if a chapter is established in Latvia, it is likely that
it will start with such a Mobile Care Unit.

11. Comment: The potential establishment of an RMHC chapter in
Latvia would be a significant contribution to improving children's
health in the country and would be emblematic of the private-public
partnerships the Embassy has been advocating in the health care
field. RMHC team members said this was the first time that an
Embassy had organized a visit for them and it provided them with
access to individuals and new sources of information that might not
otherwise have been available.


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