Executive Director: Tsegaye Bekele

Tsegaye was born in the Sidama region of Ethiopia. His parents were two of the founders of the Aleta Wondo town, starting local coffee farms and small businesses, bringing the town its first electricity. Their legacy is one of great compassion for the people and Tsegaye returns to continue on his family’s path. After graduating from agricultural engineering school in Germany, he could not return to Ethiopia as his family’s lands were confiscated. He then studied Social Science at University of Maryland’s Berlin campus. In 1976, he settled in Marin, building a plumbing business with over 30 employees to service the Greater Bay Area, and owns Absolute Leak. He has two children and 2 grandchildren. Tsegaye speaks fluent English, German, Amharic and street Sidamo. He has donated his family property in Aleto Wondo to Common River and utilizes his connections and lasting good will to benefit his hometown.

Program Director: Donna Sillan, MPH

Donna is an experienced international public health consultant, working in 40 countries over the past 31 years for large NGOs. Her specialty is community-based nutrition and she wrote a manual on the “Positive Deviance” approach, which has been translated into 7 languages. Her development career began resettling Southeast Asian refugees for IRC (International Rescue Committee) in San Jose, California and then moved to Thailand to work in refugee camps for two years. Upon return from Asia in the early 1980′s, she resettled Ethiopian refugees in California. After completing her Masters Degree in Public Health, she moved to Indonesia where she managed an urban USAID Child Survival program for Save the Children for 9 years in the slums of Jakarta. She became an independent consultant in 1997 and conducts trainings in public health, nutrition, as well as, designing and evaluating maternal and child health programs throughout the developing world. In 2007, Donna decided to settle in one village and co-founded Common River. She distilled the best practices that resonated with her from her vast NGO experience and has based Common River’s development principals on them.
Visit her website

Finance Officer: Willem J. Boot

Willem is president of Boot Coffee Consulting & Training in Mill Valley, California, specializing in strategic consulting for coffee companies, green coffee producers and international coffee organizations. As an international consultant, Boot has been working in Africa, Latin America and Europe. He was the head judge in various international coffee events in Nicaragua, Bolivia, Honduras and Panama. As a consultant he has been working on various coffee-projects for USAID, the Inter American Development Bank and private coffee companies. Each year, Willem donates a month of his time to assist subsistent coffee communities with educational projects and quality upgrading. In the past years he volunteered for projects in Ethiopia, Mexico, Rwanda, Tanzania, Zambia and Kenya.  Visit his website at:

Secretary:  Porter Merriman. J.D.

Porter is Director and Senior Corporate Counsel at Autodesk.   With over 20 years of experience in emerging technology legal issues, she counsels the company on issues relating to global marketing and business strategy.  Ms. Merriman joined Autodesk in 2006, after a career in Silicon Valley in both private practice and as in-house counsel .  She operated her private practice and dabbled in the wine business for several years before being lured back into the corporate wold by the opportunity to work at Autodesk.  She graduated Magna Cum Laude from the University of California at Santa Barbara in Business Economics.  She is the proud mother of a daughter born in Aleta Wondo, Ethiopia, and has been an enthusiastic supporter of Common River since 2008.

Director:  Ruth Berggren, M.D., FACP

Ruth directs the Center for Medical Humanities & Ethics at The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio. In this role, she teaches ethics and professionalism while nurturing empathy and humanitarian values. The Center focuses on four areas: ethics and professionalism; global health; community service learning; and the medical humanities (literature, music and art).

The daughter of public health physicians (Drs. Warren and Gretchen Berggren, Donna’s mentors), Dr. Berggren spent her childhood at Haiti’s Hôpital Albert Schweitzer, named for the Nobel Prize-winning physician and humanitarian known for his philosophy of reverence for life. Board-certified in internal medicine and infectious diseases, Dr. Berggren has extensive experience in clinical AIDS and viral hepatitis care and research, as well as HIV care in resource-poor settings.  She started and oversees the “Ethiopia Outreach” program which sends 8 medical students and 2 medical professors each year to Common River to practice both clinical and community health.

Director:  Kate Sulzner, DVM, MPVM, Cert. Conservation Management

Bridging work as a practitioner and a research scientist, Kate has more than 18 years of combined experience in wildlife health research, conservation management, epidemiology, and clinical veterinary medicine. Her work has taken her to rural and urban areas across North America as well as varied landscapes in Central America, South America, and Africa. Ultimately, she strives to work with others to produce sustainable, community-driven solutions that enhance the daily lives of people, while simultaneously allowing animals and natural systems to thrive. In addition to her role as Director of Ecovet Global, Kate works part-time as a private practice veterinarian in San Francisco, California and moonlights as a relief veterinarian for the Marine Mammal Center. She also relishes her role as partner to her architect-husband, Jerome, and mom to kids, Arlo and Zeya, and dog, Gayle.

Katheen Halat, DPM, Doctor of Podiatry

Kathleen is an adoptive mother of Adane who was born in Southern Ethiopia not far from Common River.  She is also a podiatrist with the Palo Alto Medical Foundation in Santa Cruz, CA.  Originally from Michigan, where she graduated from the University of Michigan with a degree in Natural Resource Management, Kathleen migrated to California to attend UC Berkeley for a master’s degree in Entomology.  After working in the environmental consulting field for a few years, she returned to school to become a podiatrist.

She first visited Common River in 2014 and fell in love with the people, surroundings and mission.  She and her family returned in 2015 and her son attended KG (Kindergarten) at Common River for a week, experiencing what school is like for children his age in Ethiopia.  She is one of the organizers of the yearly West Coast Ethiopian Heritage Camp for families and children adopted from Ethiopia and is also interested in skiing and gardening.

Director: Marie Bordeleau, M.Ed.

Prior to entering school administration, Marie taught English and social studies and earned a Masters in Educational Administration. She has served as vice principal and as a principal of St. Leo the Great School in Northern California.

As principal, with the support of an incredible staff and school community, she led the transformation of the school into an innovative 21st century Catholic school. After five years, she took on the role of Saint Hilary School’s (Tiburon, CA) as Principal. The school has successfully partnered with Stanford University and Apple Inc. to ensure they offer an innovative program that balances challenging academics and the needs of the whole child.

She is working on her doctorate at Creighton University in Interdisciplinary Leadership. Her weekends and free time consist of taking her son to guitar lessons, soccer, rugby and baseball events, visits to the beach with our dog, Moe, and enjoying a good book.


Find out how your visit, medical volunteering, international internship, student volunteering, volunteer teaching and / or donations can help us reach our goal of sustainable development in Aleta Wondo, Ethiopia. For more information about Common River and how you can help, contact us today.