As Venezuela descends into political and economic chaos, Pablo Henning ’16 is taking a stand in Houston. He has created a nonprofit organization that seeks to provide humanitarian aid to the people in his home country.

Photo by Tommy LaVergne

Saludos Connection was officially created this year by Henning, with the help of his mother, Maria Cristina Manrique, and fellow Rice alum Ujalashah Dhanani ’15. “Our mission is to facilitate access to health care, nutrition and education in Venezuela,” Henning said. The group collects donations of money and medical supplies, such as analgesics, antibiotics, bandages, gloves, surgical tools, sutures and syringes, and sends them to Venezuela.

“The reason we exist is because the government has outlawed international aid,” Henning explained. According to a recent New York Times article, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro refuses to accept help from other countries even though the shortage of food and medicine has reached a critical level. “Hospital wards have become crucibles where the forces tearing Venezuela apart have converged,” the article noted. “Gloves and soap have vanished from some hospitals. Often cancer medicines are found only on the black market.”

At a recent benefit concert, Saludos raised more than $3,000 to buy medicine and pay a private courier to ship the supplies. In Venezuela, the group has partnered with SOS Somos Portuguesa and Hospital Ortopédico Infantil — two nonprofit organizations that work in poor communities where people are dying from malnutrition and dehydration caused by parasites.

“Thank God for Saludos,” said Maria Alejandra Ramos, who founded SOS Somos Portuguesa (Portuguesa is a state in Venezuela). “We have helped 1,500 children with the supplies they have sent. Their help is very much appreciated, and we hope to continue collaborating with them,” said Ramos, who came to Houston to attend the benefit. Every day, she takes the medical supplies in a jeep to remote villages that lack health care centers. “The work is hard, but that doesn’t stop us. Our passion to care for the children is stronger than the difficulties.”

Long before he started Saludos, Henning was active in making people aware of the crisis in Venezuela. When he was a junior at Rice in 2014, he organized two rallies on campus to help draw attention to and support student protests in his home country. “People were aware that something was going on in Venezuela, but they didn’t understand why students were protesting there,” Henning said.

At Rice, Henning double majored in art history and bioengineering with a focus on global health technology. He participated in the Rice 360° Institute for Global Health, where he was part of a team that designed a low-cost, rugged syringe pump called AutoSyp, a machine that delivers intravenous drugs or fluids in controlled amounts. AutoSyp was designed for use in developing countries and has the potential to save millions of babies and pregnant mothers. With Rice 360°, he also spent a summer at a cancer hospital in Barretos, Brazil, where he developed clinical information for a melanoma screening device.

After he graduated, Henning sought a job where he could use his knowledge and skills. He found it by helping his mother. For years, Manrique and her expatriate friends had been helping people in Venezuela, and then last year began sending small amounts of medical supplies through suitcases. But when the situation became critical, Henning decided to turn this informal aid network into a nonprofit to expand its activities and reach.

“Everything I learned at Rice, especially with Rice 360°, I was able to use in managing Saludos,” he said. “Everything I learned in my second country, I was able to use to help my first country.” Henning is now managing director of Saludos. He doesn’t earn a salary and lives with his parents.

In creating Saludos, Henning enlisted the help of Rice classmate Dhanani, who was a premed student and worked in several clinics and shelters in Vietnam. A Muslim-American whose parents came from South Asia, Dhanani said he joined Saludos because he wanted to help people who suffer.

“Those tortured people are my people, in the same way that Indians and Pakistanis and Bangladeshis and Nepalis are my people, because we are all people.” Dhanani works 40 hours per week as a volunteer and earns a slight income by tutoring students who are preparing for the Medical College Admission Test.

Another friend of Henning’s, Katherine McElroy ’16, also volunteers with Saludos by helping to organize, catalog and pack the donated supplies. “Pablo has brought in a vision that will help Saludos flourish through connecting the Venezuelan and non-Venezuelan communities for a common cause of caring for those who cannot care for themselves,” she said.