Phs Grad Has Eyes Wide Open On Third World

LIVING

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Changing the world is a hands-on process for Sara Schmidt.

Her summer internship with TICH, the Tropical Institute for Community Health and Development, took her to Kisumu and vicinity in Kenya.

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Kindergarten children in Siaya District, Nyanza Province.

"Kenya is a democracy ... but colonialism took away 400 years of development that the West had. After colonialism, the West supported the placement of dictators. Our role in Africa is deep."

Kenya is the least evolved country in the world, according to the United Nations.

"Visiting there is a huge culture shock," Schmidt said.

People in Kisumu and the surrounding districts earn barely $1 a day. HIV is prevalent. The education system is overwhelmed. Life expectancy is 50 years. The area is rural, often with no running water or electricity.

"But people survive. They are so welcoming. I was touched every day by the incredible strength of the people," Schmidt said.

TICH's model for change is to work in partnership with communities to identify the health, social and economic concerns that are most pressing.

"TICH enters the community in a respectful way by contacting the gatekeepers or people they have worked with in the past, then together, they analyze what is going on," Schmidt said.

For instance, TICH workers might weigh and measure the children to determine their malnutrition rate -- is it 10 percent or 30? Then, if there is a school in the area, TICH might suggest to the village's leaders that farmers donate a certain amount each year to a community food fund so school children can have a midday meal.

"It is a very participatory process with constant queries -- do we have this right? Do we need to make adjustments?" Schmidt said.

TICH identifies where material resources are available, then provides training to use new resources and improve the use of resources that already exist.

Knowledge is power

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Sara Schmidt with a 2-year-old baby at Salem Orphanage, Kisumu, Kenya.

Through its affiliation with Great Lakes University of Kisumu, TICH coordinates community health days at clinics, providing people with knowledge of nutrition, hygiene and HIV prevention.

Schmidt said outsiders often judge a Kenyan mother with a sick child who does not seek a doctor as "abusive."

"There is no way that we, as outsiders, care about that baby more than the mother," Schmidt said.

She wrote on her blog while in Kenya: Does the mother have the skills to identify the early signs of illness? Does she know where the clinic is? Does she have transportation to get there? Does she have the resources to pay for the services? What will her other children do while she is away? Does she have the authority to take her child to the doctor or must she get that from her husband or mother-in-law?

"We have to remember that these people are the experts of their own lives. They are doing the best job that they are able to survive. These people work hard and love freedom as much as we do," Schmidt said.

In one village, Schmidt saw square buildings that never seemed to be used. She asked what they were and found out they were Western-style toilets.

"Some American nonprofit had sent people to build toilets. The organization did not ask if the village needed or wanted toilets. Maybe what they needed was agriculture training or medicine or another teacher," Schmidt said.

Between this internship and a previous aid trip to Brazil, Schmidt said she is convinced TICH has the best model for effecting positive changes that stick, even though the process is slow.

"It is possible in my lifetime to stop babies dying of measles, for lack of immunization and young children and mothers dying of malaria, for lack of a 50-cent bed net not being delivered," Schmidt said.

When she finishes her master's degree in social work and public health at the University of Michigan in December, Schmidt plans to work abroad.

"I would challenge people to have a heightened awareness, to be open and see the second and third world in a way we haven't before," Schmidt said.

Schmidt's Web site is: www. saraschmidt.blogspot.com/. She is a Payson High School graduate.

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