A publication for the faculty, staff, administrators, and friends of California State University, Chico
Sept 16, 2010 Volume 41 / Number 1

For a slideshow of Gardner and her students in Kenya,
Photo: From left, Matthew Bently and Dane Cameron

Life-changing Education

I had volunteered in Kenya during the summer of 2009 and realized that this would be an incredible learning experience for my nursing students, so I took six students with me during the summer of 2010. We volunteered for three weeks with a nongovernmental organization called the Community Outreach Center (www.comoutreach.com). The COC runs the Children’s Support Center, which offers a number of much needed services to children. The focus is on rehabilitating children suffering from malnutrition, physical neglect, parasitic infection, or recovering from illnesses such as malaria, when their home is unable to provide an environment for recovery. 

The students and I lived in a poor, rural village in western Kenya and awoke most mornings to the sound of drumming. We stayed with the directors of COC. Our house had running cold water but no electricity, only solar powered lights, which were used sparingly, and a tiny refrigerator that was turned off at night.  The rolling hills were covered with small farms and the houses were constructed out of sticks and mud. Approximately 80 percent of the people in this area live on less than one dollar a day. The villagers had no electricity or running water, and the people walked everywhere on dirt roads and small paths.

The Kenyan people were incredibly friendly and greeted us every day with a smile and warm handshake as we walked throughout the village. Children were fascinated and constantly ran up to greet us and enthusiastically say the few English words they knew, “How are you, how are you?”

My nursing students had never traveled to a developing country or seen such devastating poverty, yet they jumped right in and helped in any way needed. We admitted lethargic, malnourished children to the center and watched their activity levels increase and personalities develop. Once the children started eating nourishing food, the changes took place so quickly that at times it was difficult to believe they were the same children.

Most of the children in this village do not own shoes, so they suffer from jiggers, which are small sand fleas that are found in the soil and can multiply in the children’s feet until they are unable to walk. I’ll never forget an eight-year-old boy who spent two weeks at the center in order to have his jiggers removed. When he was discharged he left with his first pair of shoes (flip flops). He was so pleased!

The nursing students and I participated with School Health Days at two different grade schools. We examined children for conditions such as parasites, ring worm, scabies, and wounds. We treated over 260 children in two days. In addition, the nursing students taught first aid and health classes at the high school and youth center.

It is estimated that 10 percent of the Kenyan population is HIV positive. While in Kenya, I conducted a research study and interviewed 29 HIV positive women in their homes, examining their knowledge, attitudes, and beliefs related to HIV and AIDS. The women said they were honored that a woman from the United States would want to visit their homes and hear what they had to say.

Eight of the women I interviewed formed a support group and are leasing a small plot of land and growing grass for livestock. They were proud of their work and wanted to show me their crop, so I followed the women along the narrow paths to their field. The support group has established a practice called “table lending,” which means the proceeds from their crop will be given out to these women in small loans so they can start small businesses. As a result of these loans, one woman now sells cooking oil and another sells small fish. They were so excited about their project because their work is helping them earn money to feed their families.

This was a life changing experience for the nursing students, and they all expressed gratitude for being able to volunteer in Kenya. Student Andrew Bartlow said, “I had an absolutely amazing experience on the trip, priceless. I loved every minute. I am blessed to have had the opportunity to interact with such amazing people.” A second student, Priscilla Garcia, said, “The trip was the best thing I ever did. That is what I keep telling everyone who asks me about it. I learned some lessons that I plan on carrying with me for the rest of my life.” A third student, Alexa Martinez, summed up her experience in the following way, “It was one of the best things I have ever done and even better than I expected!”

Professor Janelle Gardner, Nursing