Sunday Spotlight: Janine Selendy, founder and co-chair, Horizon International global non-profit

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Janine Selendy, at home in North Salem. Photo courtesy of Janine Selendy.

It was the late 1980’s. Janine Selendy was riding in a Jeep in the Andes mountains in Peru, at an altitude of over 14,000 feet. She was determined to capture footage of the native vicuña, a relative of the llama and a species increasingly threatened by poaching. If she got the right imagery, she might have a chance to save the population from extinction. The stakes were high; there were just 6,000 vicuñas left.

Selendy got the footage she needed, despite the perilousness of the situation. Along with the video, she and her team also drafted a plan to save the vicuña population, which they presented on behalf of the Peruvian government and the World Wildlife Fund at a global conference on international trade in endangered species. The plan would not only save the vicuñas but also provide a sustainable economic model that would benefit the local economy.

Years later, Selendy came across an ad in the New York Times for the Italian fashion brand Loro Piana. The ad touted the company’s use of vicuña fibers in its high-end clothing, a practice that would not have been possible were it not for the foundational work that Selendy and her colleagues had done decades prior. By that point, the vicuña population had grown to 350,000. Recalling what it was like to see that ad, Selendy was moved to tears.

“It felt very good,” she said.

It’s hardly an exaggeration to say that Janine Selendy has spent most of her life working to save the world. In 1980 she founded Horizon International, a non-profit dedicated to “finding and advancing solutions to the interrelated concerns of global health, environment and poverty,” according to the organization’s website.

“I was reading too much about negative things in the world. I wanted to do something more helpful,” Selendy said.

From the start, Selendy dreamed big.

“We wanted to reach millions of people,” she said.

Selendy and Horizon co-chair, Linda Jarvin, began to spread the word about Horizon by sending letters around the world. They made inroads with powerful organizations within the United Nations, including the United Nations Population Fund, UNICEF and UNESCO, figuring those groups would have the knowledge base and connections to get things done.

At the time, television was the best medium available to reach the greatest number of people, so Selendy and her colleagues focused their initial efforts there. Horizon’s “One Second Before Sunrise” documentary series, hosted and narrated by Lynn Redgrave, was broadcast in more than 100 countries in 15 languages.

Later in her career, when filming a program for the United Nations Population Fund in Burkina Faso, Selendy learned about the power of the shea nut, one of the few renewable resources in a region of West Africa. A 300-kilometer stretch of Africa is the only place in the world where the shea nut tree grows, but their nuts are processed to obtain shea butter, which is distributed around the world for multiple uses. Selendy helped to facilitate programs that assisted Burkinabé women’s economic returns from shea nuts. This was a transformative development for women in the region, who historically had not had the opportunity to directly benefit from the shea nut trade.

Since 2011, Selendy has published two volumes of a book, “Water and Sanitation-Related Diseases,” which brought together the voices of 75 global experts in an essential resource for graduate students and professionals in the fields of infectious disease, public health, chemical and environmental engineering and international affairs. The second edition factors the consequences of climate change. Harvard University’s chair of the department of global health and social medicine, Paul Farmer, called the book, “a powerful and hefty manual to guide collective action going forward.” Selendy’s book, like her documentary TV series, has been distributed in over 100 countries.

Selendy is now working on a popular version of the book, which will help non-experts understand how healthy ecosystems are essential for human health. This version will include lots of pictures and anecdotes to simplify the subject matter for the average person.

“I’m most passionate about this as a culmination of my work,” Selendy said, calling it a “labor of love” getting the books together. The books, Selendy said, “incorporated my medical background with my outreach in every way.”

Janine Selendy in southwest France in 2009. Image courtesy of Janine Selendy.

While Selendy is rightly proud of her professional body of work, she’s equally proud of the family who have supported her throughout her career: her two sons, Philippe and Béla, her four grandchildren and her partner of 23 years, Charles Dickey, whom she refers to as “my darling.”

It was Dickey, a past president of the North Salem Bridle Trails Association, who first attracted Selendy to North Salem. It wasn’t long before Selendy applied her professional expertise to local matters. She served on the conservation advisory council of North Salem for a period of time and is a current steward of the Stempler Preserve, part of the North Salem Open Land Foundation.

While the nature of her work has prevented Selendy from being as involved locally as she might wish, she does have a few simple suggestions for what North Salem residents can do to take care of their own small place in the world.

“First of all, there should be made more available means of testing your own water,” she said, citing the many properties in town that are reliant on well water. “It’s terribly important to have it tested. It’s one thing to get a water purifier, but let’s know what’s in our water supply. Let’s know the horrible problems that come about from the use of pesticides and herbicides.”

Selendy also noted the importance of wildlife corridors, so that wildlife can get from one place to another.

“Animals need to have a place to live. It enriches everyone’s life watching these animals,” Selendy said. Wildflowers, too, are important as they attract bees for pollination. “The Hudson Valley Seed Company is a helpful resource,” Selendy said.

From here in New York to Peru, Burkina Faso and elsewhere around the world, Selendy’s career and life experiences are wide-ranging and thoroughly impressive. “If you leave yourself open, it’s so beautiful,” Selendy said. “When we have experiences, it enriches people to grow, and to have new visions of what’s possible.”

Correction: an earlier version of this article identified Linda Jarvin as a co-founder of Horizon International. Jarvin is a co-chair.

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