Guest Blog Post — Making an Impact: How one Global Travel Scholar used her Experiences Abroad to Increase Community Awareness of Malaria

Tessa _CHouser2Tessa Houser was a recipient of the Global Travel Scholarship Program in Summer 2014. With this scholarship, Tessa spent a summer in Tanzania, where she formed close relationships with her Maasai host family. In particular, she became close to her 12-year-old host sister, Salma. Her relationship with Salma and her direct experiences with malaria inspired Tessa to raise awareness of the disease when she returned to Pittsburgh, and to raise money for an organization working to prevent transmission by providing families like Salma’s with mosquito nets. Tessa elaborates on these experiences in the blog post below.

My junior year of high school, I was fortunate enough to win a scholarship with the World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh to spend a summer in Tanzania. While I was there, I had an amazing time. During my stay, I saw the way malaria impacts families firsthand. My host sister, Salma, was one of the most beautiful parts of the trip. She was 12 years old, but wise beyond her years. She lived with her grandparents (my host parents) and two younger siblings. Her parents worked in town and sent home money to their children. Due to this, Salma took on a maternal role and took care of her younger brother and sister.

On the second day of my trip, Salma got really sick. Because I had gotten sick as well, Salma and I bonded over our sickness together. When our group went to the local beach together, Salma laid down on my lap as I covered her up, and rocked her to sleep. You could just tell that she was yearning for someone to be a mother to her. Later, someone asked if she had malaria. I was horrified. From what I heard back in the United States, malaria was deadly. Our medic had a malaria kit to test for the illness. As I was sitting there, petrified that she had this terrible illness, one of the group leaders came over to me and told me what malaria really meant. In actuality, malaria is very treatable if caught early on. After that, although she was diagnosed with malaria, she didn’t sit around as is generally expected when one is infected. She played, and was incredibly lively despite her illness.

When it came time for her to go to the local clinic, she would have to walk several miles to get there. I had to get to the clinic myself, as I was ill as well with dehydration and jet lag. When we headed to the clinic, Salma had already started on her way there. I hopped in the Jeep with my group leader as we started frantically driving down the bumpy path to find Salma. When we found her, she had already walked around 5 kilometers. She recognized me, and ran to the car. She was beaming with happiness. In fact, she ran so fast, her shoe broke. But she didn’t care, she just picked it up, and climbed into the car, and sat right next to me as I hugged her and we sat together the whole ride to the clinic.

One of my favorite memories happened on the way to the clinic, when our driver accidentally ran over a neighbor’s chicken on the road. After the owner saw it, he started running after the truck, waving his hands in the air and yelling at the driver. Salma and I could not stop laughing. We giggled all the way to the clinic.

Salma was probably really sick, but she did not let that slow her down. She walked miles to the clinic to get treatment without complaint. This made me think strongly about my life, especially my access to health care. It is all too easy for me to go to the pharmacy, clinic, or hospital. With Salma, it is a different story. Although it was not easy experiencing illness firsthand, I would never change any of my trip. It was such a life-changing experience.

Coming back into the United States, I knew I had to do something to try to fix this problem. Although the disease is treatable and does not mean a death sentence, the reason it is fatal is due to the cases that go untreated. Salma’s family was able to put the money together to get her medicine, but not every family is. Programs that provide mosquito nets give families the best chance at prevention. My personal mantra is that anyone who has the ability to help change the world has a duty to do so.

The next step was to find a way to raise money and awareness for malaria. I kept trying, with very little success, to create an event that would be profitable and would ensure that I would raise money for the cause and for the right opportunity. This was the hardest part of the entire project.

I found a group called Nothing But Nets, a grassroots campaign that specializes in malaria prevention and specifically helps small groups raise money on their own. They then take the money raised and distribute the nets to places in need and advocate for the cause in Washington, D.C.

I finally came up with the idea to team up with my school’s National Honors Society. Every year we have a pageant that determines our school’s prom king. This satirical event attracts the entire community and raises a lot of money for charity. I approached the NHS director and asked if I could help out and raise some money for my cause too, and she agreed. I set up a station with a poster board filled with pictures and infographs about the impact that malaria has on countries in need. I also set up two donation boxes and a small basketball hoop and asked people to donate in exchange for a chance to shoot at the hoop. I gave a speech and showed a short video in the “intermission” of the show with the tagline that every $10 donated to the cause gives a net to someone in need. Additionally, the NHS matched my donations.  I did not really have a goal starting off; I just wanted to raise money for a good cause and to tell people my story.

When people started coming in, I just stood off to the side, and hardly anyone noticed my table. I got a couple donations, but nothing much. I was so nervous and could not talk to anyone. I remember feeling like I was letting Salma down. She deserved better than me quietly standing behind a table, too afraid to even engage in polite conversation. After a very disappointing start, I gave my speech. I showed a short clip that described Nothing But Nets. Then the lights came up, and I told my story. I told everyone about my experience and especially Salma. They clapped, and I sat back down. On the way out, everyone who passed my station donated. They all said they loved my story, and that they wanted to help. The donations just kept coming and coming. I was so proud of what I had done. At the end of the night, I had raised $400 in donations alone. The NHS kindly rounded up and gave the project $1,000. With my community’s help, we gave 100 people mosquito nets.

After all is said and done, I know that even though we raised a lot of money, there are still too many people struggling with the disease. We put a very small dent in a massive problem. I hope to continue to work with Nothing But Nets to keep making an impact. I will never forget Salma. I will never forget my experiences. They fuel my desire to help more people.

To learn more about Nothing But Nets, please visit their website at: http://nothingbutnets.net/