Saturday, October 27, 2012

Shot@Life Trip Blog: Giving Kids a Shot@Life

(All pictures by Insider Images)

It occurs to me that some of the folks reading this post may by interested in my journey, but haven't heard really what I'm doing here in Africa. After all, I never really explained it very well, did I?

I am a volunteer champion for the UN Foundation's Shot@Life campaign. This campaign raises awareness, funding, and advocacy for global vaccines. We focus on four diseases, which are the top killers of children worldwide: polio, measles, rotavirus, and pneumcoccal virus. A child dies every 20 seconds from a treatable or preventable disease. Champions spread the word that together we can SAVE a child's life every 20 seconds by supporting global health focused foreign aid and fundraising from individual donors.

We believe every child - no matter where they are born - has a right to life-saving immunizations, so that they can have a chance at those universal childhood milestones we treasure so much and sometimes even take for granted in the United States.

I'm here with Shot@Life in Uganda collecting photos and stories in a country where preventable diseases take a terrible toll on infants and children because they don't have good access to vaccines. Despite the poverty here, there is great joy and we find children celebrating all kinds of milestones. The needs and the joys of the kids we meet are so similar to those of the children we know and love back home.

I've met kids in extreme poverty who are proud of their homework showing me impeccable handwriting. I've watched them sing and dance. I've met young girls who are very skilled at making crafts from recycled items who sell them as young entrepreneurs earning money to buy their own school books and sanitary napkins. I've made silly faces with them and listened to them boast about their skills playing "football" and "netball." I've listened to them tell me they want to become teachers, nurses, executives, lawyers, and even President or Chief Justice. Do those sound like any children you've met where you live? Yep.
We hope we can bring a bit of them into your hearts, so you'll join us in ensuring a bright future for them. We are far from home, but dedicated to getting these moments and stories because want every child to have a shot at playing with a cuddly puppy...

  ...or playing an instrument....

...or being loved by Mommy....

If you are inspired by what you are reading from me (or from my fellow travelers) and want to help make more of these moments possible, you can donate to Shot@Life at Just $20 can save a child from four deadly diseases. Donations to Shot@Life are directed to UNICEF and the GAVI Alliance. Both are effective partners in the distribution of vaccines globally.

If you'd like to celebrate some of your own milestones with children, check out the Shot@Life mobile app to help capture and organize them. Cool stuff!

Thank you for reading and coming with us on our journey to save children's lives.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Shot@Llife Trip Blog: Day 2 Into the Field for Family Health Days

photo by Insider Images

Can you imagine getting dressed in your holiday finest for Christmas or the High Holy Days, heading over to your church or temple, and getting your blood pressure checked...and your kids immunized...and find out your HIV status? That's exactly what was happening at a mosque in a rural district of Uganda where we observed our first Family Health Day. It was a cultural treat to be a part of Eid-Al-Adha, an Islamic festival commemorating Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son. As Muslims around the world gathered to celebrate this holiday, hundreds of Ugandans were listening to their Imam tie in the religious message to the need to care for their families and be healthy. Family Health Days were instituted by a partnership between the government and UNICEF to reach rural families where they naturally congregate. A full 90% of Ugandans attend Islamic or Christian religious services, which are more accessible to them than health clinics. So, four times a year the "mountain goes to Muhammad" and critical services are brought out to the people who need them the most. By the way, "cultural treat" included witnessing a real animal sacrifice of a cow. Hey, that story is part of my faith, too, so this is important stuff not to be missed...but I'll spare you the image.

photo by Insider Images
This pic (pictures here by Insider Images), however, is of me talking to 20 year old Aisha in the black and white headscarf. Her daughter is the tiny lady in the pink ruffles and head scarf. They were there with Aisha's mom waiting for immunizations. They both agreed that at 40 I was very old to be a mom of young girls. Thanks, ladies!

It was a beautiful yet hot day, so we all could appreciate how nice it was that these families did not have to walk very far with infants for the event. Mosques are placed close enough that most people can get to them without too much trouble. Afterwards, they all took home meat from the slaughtered cow and sheep, so everyone would enjoy some nutrition in their bellies for the celebration as well.
                                                                                                  photo by Insider Images
The second part of our day was touring another school, which was also providing child health services that day. This time it was a boarding school out away from the city. It was a very different experience from visiting yesterday's school in Kampala. One of the reasons we were there was to see their innovative infrastructure changes that are improving the kid's lives. I'll have a whole post on this later (spoilers: solar, rain collection, and biofuel, oh my!), but lets just say here that it was a lovely time to meet more lovely kids. This time I got to talk to more older kids and hear more about their interests, hopes and dreams. Again, that deserves its own post later. But if we believe in their dreams as much as they do, I believe I met future teachers, executives, presidents, and a chief justice! Here, as everywhere we went, they were very interested in seeing pictures of my own kids. I especially delight in showing them pictures of my girls playing "football" (aka soccer). The kids like that and like to brag about their own skills and yell "Gooooooal!" at me. Here, I'm showing them pictures of my family in hats and coats to show them it's cold where I live.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Shot@Life Trip Blog Day 1: UNICEF and Railway School

We're finally out in the daylight and starting to see Kampala! Our first stop was to UNICEF offices for an overview of the country's child health situation. Some progress is much more encouraging than I anticipated and some challenges are much greater than I imagined.

Uganda shows phenomenal growth with 7-8% GDP growth per year for the last 10 years - faster than China. We met officials from the Ministry of Health proud to be in partnership with UNICEF to employ innovation in programs dizzying in scope. Mosques and churches work together hosting Family Health Days at houses of worship easily accessible to families four times a year.

However, the director took some rosy sheen off of the pretty pictures in my UNICEF donor literature back home. For instance, it's fantastic that every child in Uganda can get a free primary school education now, yet K-8 education doesn't give vocational skills necessary to find a job and secondary education is too big an investment for families in extreme poverty. With the world's highest fertility rate, child health care coverage is not rising quickly and every program must be evaluated in real time to take care they don't make things worse. "A country is like an elephant," he said. "It takes a long time to start moving and once it starts dancing, you have to be very careful where it steps or it could be disastrous." Nonetheless, the promise of the Family Health Day program and cell phone tech innovations give much reason for hope (more on these later).

The highlight of the day was visiting Railway Primary School, serving 1306 children from surrounding slum areas. Each class has between 80-120 kids and four teachers. The children - uniformed, disciplined, but full of personality - welcomed us warmly and couldn't wait to jump into our pictures.

The problems the students of Railway face are extraordinary. Many are orphans, live in one room homes, are affected by HIV/AIDS, and have to find odd jobs to try to earn money after school. In the recent past, most girls were pregnant by age 11. Yet inside school gates, kids are encouraged by teachers who are more family than mere staff. And lives are changing dramatically for the better.

We were blown away with how much is done with few resources. All around the school are positive messages and even some about sexual health ("Body Changes Are Not Abnormalities. They Are Signs of Body Growth") painted on rocks. Kids performed skits and songs for us about the importance of sanitation and immunization ("Sanitation, you are our are precious!). Girls make crafts from straw and waste paper to raise money for books and material for cloth sanitary pads. At every turn, solutions to the thorniest problems are found with creativity and love.

Overall, I was amazed at how at ease I felt as I saw familiar feelings reflected in people around me. UNICEF field staff are driven by the same passions that motivate Shot@Life champions. Children in poverty are silly, theatrical, clever, and beautiful...just like my own daughters. That's why I'm here. Because I would never sit idly by if my own kids needed help like this. And we're not about to give up on the children of Uganda.

Shot@Life Trip Blog: The trip to Kampala

It was a long flight from Amsterdam to Kampala, but I had the good fortune to sit next to a the lovely Simona Schiava, a doctor from Milan (who looked to me more like Sophia Loren than anyone I've ever met, by the way) who has been working in Uganda for 8 years in an HIV clinic. Her clinic is supported by an English charity called Mild May.

Half way into a ten hour flight, we discovered our mutual interest in HIV/AIDS health issues, which made the flight go faster. She spoke of some of the challenges of working in Uganda, including the emotional burden of coming from Europe to work where the need is so devastating. For the first 6 months, she said she cried quite a lot from the heartbreaking things she saw even when kids have access to treatment. She told me a story about an 8 year old boy she treated who had been born HIV+. He loved to play football (soccer), but due to diabetic complications he got an infection in his leg, which had to be amputated. Happily, he got a prosthetic leg and was very happy playing soccer once more until it was found that he had cancer. This was beyond the treatment they could give and he passed away. Even when they are able to go beyond providing even simple basic needs like water and drugs, it still can be overwhelming when cards are so overwhelmingly stacked against children's lives.

She told me not to be surprised if a mother asks me to take a child with me because the mother feels she cannot take care of her baby. This has happened to her on a number of occasions. "It gives you an idea of how desperate they are."

I have just a few more moments on this computer, but I want to make a few more points of things I learned from her.
  • Sometimes challenges come from culture. Even 4 years ago, there were still rumors of white people putting the AIDS virus in lubricants for condoms to give Ugandans AIDS and suppress them. This makes AIDS prevention highly challenging with such misconceptions in attitude.
  • Mother to child transmission is prevented not only with drugs but with the rising commonality of C-section baby delivery so that the child is not exposed to as much of the mother's blood at birth
  • She advised me to not be afraid to ask questions of the women I meet. She said they are very candid and will understand I am there to tell their stories to bring help to the country.
OK, I'm late and have to run.

Thank you, Dr. Simona!!!

Monday, October 22, 2012

Shot@Life trip blog: Night before the trip

One last night before the big trip. Having never gone to Africa before, I’m relying on the packing list provided by Shot@Life, the advice of friends, and my own instinct to travel lightly. Here’s the whole of my luggage for the week.

And here’s my daughter trying to squeeze into my carry-on so I can take her with me.

I’d say that’s a suspicious looking package!

Preparing to go to Uganda has provided lots of opportunities for good conversations with the kids about global thinking and kids in need. As I think about how much I’ll miss them (and my nervousness makes we hope fervently that nothing goes awry that would prevent me from seeing them again in one week), I’ve been purposefully making time to answer their questions and just bask in their silliness. Tonight, I had none of the usual conference calls or ringing phones. It was a night of home-cooked food, crafts, and talking.

One conversation was started by my 7yr old with something like this, “Mommy, I wish we could just get 2 big trucks and bring food to everyone in the world.” We explored the ideas of transport, geography, buying locally, scale…all sorts of things that led to the point that supporting UNICEF was really doing just what she envisioned. The conclusion was that we should keep Trick or Treating for UNICEF.

Anyway, it was an idyllic last night with them before the trip where I’ll be heading out to try to make sure parents and children have lots of nights to love one another.