Volunteer Memoirs – Interview with Lillian Alexander

Lillian Alexander with a mule in Duna, Ethiopia.

Lillian Alexander with a mule in Duna, Ethiopia.

Dates of volunteer work: January 3, 2012-January 20, 2012

Tell us a little bit about yourself: I grew up in the small town of Cabot (where the cheese is made!) nestled in the foothills of Vermont’s Green Mountains. I am currently a senior at Harvard College.

What made you want to do volunteer work in Africa? Before volunteering with KHI in Ethiopia, I had spent eight weeks in rural Uganda working for a child malnutrition program. While I have always loved traveling and exploring new places, my experience in Uganda cemented my passion for global health and helping others. As soon as I returned home from Uganda, I was already itching to return to Africa to continue developing my interests.

How did you get involved with Kissito? I had worked with the Initiative to End Child Malnutrition (IECM) through the Massachusetts General Hospital’s Division of Global Health and Human Rights in rural Uganda during the summer of 2011. Due to IECM’s incredible success in establishing a comprehensive inpatient and outpatient malnutrition treatment program, KHI asked us to come to Ethiopia and help to build a similar program. I was fortunate enough to be invited on the three week trip with IECM to Ethiopia.

What program did you work with? I worked with the KHI team in Duna Woreda in Hadiya Zone.
What was your role as a volunteer while in Ethiopia? While in Ethiopia, I worked with the KHI team on a variety of different tasks and no day was the same as the last. Sometimes I would drive around to different health posts with a KHI employee to train the community health workers in the malnutrition assessment and treatment protocols. Some days I would work alongside the KHI team from sunrise to sunset helping out with the mass screening of children as well as pregnant and lactating women. Other days I would be cleaning and decorating an empty room at a health center to be turned into a stabilization center for malnutrition patients requiring inpatient care.

What was the most memorable moment you had while volunteering? One of the most memorable moments from the three weeks I spent volunteering with KHI in Ethiopia was our last night in Duna before traveling to Addis to fly back to the U.S. We had decided to have a big celebration with a bonfire where we cooked an entire goat! I still remember sitting around the fire eating, laughing, and singing with the KHI team. They were some of the kindest, most passionate people I have ever met. Fortunately, I have been able to stay in touch with most of them, and they still inspire me with their dedication to helping others and improving KHI to the best of their abilities.

What was the hardest thing you had to experience? One of the most difficult moments of my time volunteering in Ethiopia was having to turn away mothers who had come to a mass screening day expecting to walk away with a sack of fortified corn soya blend. On that particular day, we had screened over 500 women and children, exhaustively working long after the sun had set by the dull light of our cell phones. There were still about 30 mothers waiting to receive their small food rations when we ran out of corn soya blend. We had no choice but to pack up our supplies and head home, with promises to return in the morning with more rations. The looks on these women’s faces was heartbreaking. Many of them had walked several kilometers toting one, if not two or three, babies and young children, only to stand in line after line beneath the blazing sun for hours without food or water. Despite our commitment to return the next morning, I felt so guilty and helpless as I hopped into KHI’s car to drive home to the warm dinner that awaited us, while these women had long distances to walk in the pitch dark with their children, only to return home empty-handed and exhausted.

What was the most rewarding experience? One of the most rewarding experiences of my time volunteering for KHI was creating a stabilization center out of a dingy old room at a health center that had been previously used for storage. I remember spending an entire Saturday at the health center scrubbing the walls and floors of the soon-to-be stabilization room, then decorating it with colorful stickers of zoo and ocean animals as well as detailed posters to remind caretakers of the treatment protocols. We managed to find spare mattresses, sheets, and blankets, which we used to set up about five beds for malnutrition patients. Needless to say, the beds were quickly filled.

Happiest memory of the trip: One of the happiest memories of my three weeks in Ethiopia was finally seeing one of our inpatients smile. She was a three year old girl who, accompanied by her mom and younger sister, had been admitted to the Bure stabilization center. Every time we visited Bure, I would pick up a ball or some stickers and try to play with her. But it was clear that she was so weak and in so much pain, that she hardly reacted at all. However, that didn’t stop me from trying to engage with her whenever I would visit. I noticed her finally starting to improve, little by little. On one of our last days in Duna, I was playing a hide-and-seek game with her when she finally cracked a smile. Though it was small, her smile made my day as I knew it had huge implications for her overall health and well-being.

One tip you would give to a potential volunteer: Soak in every moment of your experience. Whether you’re volunteering for two weeks, two months, or two years, it will go by so quickly. Take advantage of everything and leave with no regrets. Make friends with the KHI team, they are some of the most amazing people you will ever meet.

Sum up your trip in ONE sentence: My time in Ethiopia was truly one of the most challenging, yet incredibly rewarding experiences of my life.

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