Friday, July 25, 2014

Ashley Glen travels to Malawi to help with malaria and HIV/AIDS education efforts

Ashley Glen partaking in a performance, diagnosing the children on the ground with malaria
Andrea Kobbert photo
Justine Jorgensen

Ashley Glen, who has recently completed her 4th year of a Bachelor of Health Science at the University of Lethbridge, participated in a trip to Malawi, Africa for one month.

The trip was made available by a class offered at the university, and the duration was from May to June. With the objectives of health education and promotion, the participants educated grade 7 students about malaria and HIV/AIDS - tasked with raising funds for mosquito nets, they raised $22,000 (with the majority of Glen's funds coming from Pincher Creek), a big success as the highest previous year total was $12,000.

Larissa Bice playing with children
Ashley Glen photo

Q&A with Ashley Glen:

When were you in Africa?

We travelled to Malawi on May 12th, arriving on May 14th. We departed Malawi on June 9th arriving back in Calgary on June 10th.

What organization did you go with?

It was actually a class offered by the University of Lethbridge in a joint effort between the Health Science Faculty (my faculty) and the Fine Arts Faculty.

Janna Berger playing with children
Ashley Glen photo
How long did the trip take to organize?

I believe the professors begin organizing almost a year in advance. I joined the trip in November 2013 as a latecomer. Most of my travel companions signed up in September.

How many went on the trip?

There were 14 students and 2 professors. 

How did you raise so much money? How was it that Pincher Creek played into that amount?

The $22,000 raised was a joint effort by the 14 students who went on the trip. There was a silent auction held in Lethbridge, bottle drives and individual donations from business and family members, as well as joint participation between the Lethbridge HIV Connection and the University of Lethbridge during Lethbridge HIV Connection’s “Spring for Life” gerbera daisy campaign.

My aunt, Sandy Breckenridge, a lab tech at the Pincher hospital, solicited the help of her colleagues. Also my grandmother, Rosaleen Berger, a member of the Pincher Planters, encouraged her fellow Pincher Planters to purchase gerbera daisies during the “Spring for Life” campaign.

Why did you earn so much money here?

The people of Pincher Creek were very generous! I think what really helped was being able to attach a dollar amount to each mosquito net donated (which is where all the money went). It was $12/net. It allowed those who normally wouldn’t or couldn’t donate, to attach their money to something physical. The mosquito nets were personally handed out by us students at the end of each program day, so there was no questioning where the funds would be allocated.

Could you go in depth about your trip and the work you did?

Each school day, we worked with standard 7 (grade 7) students to create a presentation, to educate their fellow students and community about how to prevent malaria as well as HIV/AIDS. For the first week of the trip, we focused on Malaria prevention, with the remaining time focusing on HIV/AIDS prevention. We worked with groups of students that numbered from 100 to 300-400 each day. The students would be broken up into groups – first boys and girls, to ensure an equal number of both, and then separated into 7 groups (2 Canadian students each group). Each group was given a topic to present to the audience. These presentations were in the form of small skits as well as song and dance. Each skit performed was only part of the message we were relaying to the students. Once each performance was over, we provided mosquito nets to each standard 7 student (with the exception of 2 schools where we had more students than anticipated).

These mosquito nets provide protection from malaria carrying mosquitos. Often there are 3 to 4 people sleeping on one single mat on the floor, so the nets provided helped keep more than the standard 7 student safe, it helped their families as well. Each afternoon of the school programs, we became the audience and the community performed skits of their own, as well as different dances and songs. At the end of each cultural presentation, we presented mosquito nets to 50 pregnant women as well as 50 women with children under 5. Both populations are at the greatest risk of contracting malaria. These women were chosen by the local medical clinics and were deemed the highest risk in the community.

Heinz (U of L shirt), Heather Nixdorff, Ellen Grossman & Candace Douslin watch cultural performances
Ashley Glen photo
Why grade 7 students?

The school system is set up differently than in Alberta. In Malawi, there is primary, secondary and
post-secondary school. Standard 7 is the grade before children write exams to enter secondary school. In secondary school it is mandatory that the child be fluent in English. The standard 7 students we worked with (for the most part) had a grasp of English, helping to bridge the language barrier. The students chosen from standard 7 were encouraged to start Malaria and HIV/AIDS prevention programs within their schools to keep the health promotion going.

How are the mosquito nets life-saving?

Mosquito nets are treated with chemicals that kill mosquitos upon contact but also repel them. These mosquitos carry malaria, which is an extremely deadly virus if not treated. When we surveyed each standard 7 class, we asked who had never had malaria – in each group, no one put their hands up. When we informed the students the rate of malaria in Canada was 0.02%, they were completely shocked. Malaria can be cured with treatment, which is provided by the Malawian government for free. However, access to these medical clinics or hospitals can prove very difficult for the very rural areas we visited, as they are also the most impoverished areas. The mosquito nets aid in the prevention for the rural populations, hopefully decreasing the rate of incidence. 

How was the culture different?

This is a loaded question! The cultural is so vastly different and yet there are some similarities to ours that I did not expect. Malawians are an extremely culture rich people. The dances and songs we were privileged enough to have performed for us, were dances and songs performed for generations. We were invited to dance at each performance, which I did each time. It was amazing. The community was so excited to see us trying to learn how to do their dances, which believe me, was no easy feat! When I couldn’t get the dance moves correct, I did my own, which was ALWAYS a hit!

I would often be approached by community members and thanked for participating. The amount of culture in Malawi really made me realize how little “culture” we have in Canada. Sure, we have poutine, the maple leaf and hockey, but when we were asked to create a performance by a group of secondary students we worked with, we couldn’t come up with anything besides a terrible version of the Cadillac Ranch!

What did it feel like to be teaching?

It was amazing and terrifying all at once. I was acutely aware that I was responsible for relaying a lifesaving message and that was a huge responsibility that I did not take lightly. The first day of the programs, there was a point where my partner and I were staring at the students with them staring right back at us. It was like they could sense our anxiety! But each day got a little better and by the end I was comfortable. I believe that these teaching experience will help me teach my future counselling clients about their addictions in ways I may not have thought of before.

What did you learn?

Again, another very loaded question! Mainly what I learned was to never take for granted the amazing privileges granted to me by simply being Canadian. I had many things reinforced, such as the importance of family and community. I never took my family for granted, but I have certainly taken my community for granted. Being Canadian, we have so many rights and freedoms I have never thought twice about – education, health care, access to clean water, a bed to sleep in, an actual roof over my head as opposed to a grass hut that leaks in rainy season; however, I will never take them for granted again. Even public transportation! Many people do not have access to transportation other than walking, many, many kilometers.

Would you do it again?

In a heartbeat.

Jillian Berthelet and Robyn Terlestski hand out mosquito nets to standard 7 students
Robyn Terlestski photo

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