He lost his parents as a child. Now he’s fighting so no child endures the same.

This blog post was originally posted on Upworthy.com as part of a project with Girls’ Globe, Upworthy and Johnson & Johnson.

When Jack Hisard was a young boy, he lost both his parents, one after the other, to diseases that could have been cured — if they had lived in other parts of the world.

First, Jack lost his father to malaria when he was only four years old.

“I remember that night clearly in my head because his last moments were spent sitting next to me in our small grass thatched hut in the village,” he writes in an email. “There was no hospital nearby where he could be treated.”

Jack’s Father. All photos by Mama Clinic/YouTube

Malaria’s considered a Neglected Tropical Disease (NTD), which affect more than 1 billion people in over 149 tropical and subtropical countries. While these diseases are preventable, it’s estimated that 57 million years of life is lost due to premature disability and death from NTDs.

After Jack’s father’s death, life for his family became tough. His mother couldn’t provide for herself or her children for a number of reasons including the fact that she suffered from depression. Then, just two years after his father passed away, she had a stroke and died too.

The period after her death was difficult to say the least, but Jack was determined to find a way take care of his remaining family.

So, when he was just nine years old, he started fishing in Lake Victoria to pay for his school fees and feed his two younger siblings. He did this while still going to school, because he believed an education would ultimately make a difference in his life.

Jack (right) fishing with other kids from his village.

“Life was tough but my belief in education never faded,” he writes.

There were still some times when he couldn’t pay all of the fees associated with school so he had to miss some of it,  but he still remained the top student in his class for many years. Finally, thanks to all his hard work and dedication, he managed to graduate high school and secure scholarships that would take care of his college tuition.

But while he was in high school and college, he was thinking about how to solve the problem of the lack of health services in rural areas like his hometown.

Jack had witnessed firsthand how devastating preventable diseases can be to a community when they have limited access to health care. Aside from his parents, he saw close friends, relatives and neighbours succumb to malaria and other treatable diseases.

In their village, homeopathic medicine had been the main medicinal resource for as long as he could remember, because people could easily access the herbs they needed.

“I remember the many times I accompanied my grandmother, an herbalist, to go deep into the forest to dig for roots and tree barks which would be used as medicine for various ailments,” recalls Jack.

When it came to assisting births, traditional midwives would conduct deliveries on the floors of people’s grass thatched houses. These midwives and healers didn’t wear gloves or use any form of sterilization. They would use boiling salt water to clean wounds after deliveries and, if complications arose during a delivery, lives would be lost because they didn’t have the lifesaving tools one might find in hospitals.

So he decided he’d find a way to bring better health care to his community. That’s when Mama Clinic was born.

Mama Clinic provides primary healthcare services, outpatient and inpatient care and free maternal and child health care services to people in rural Kenya. Jack started the organization back in 2012, when he was only 19 years old. In just the last six years, it’s served over 40,000 patients.

The clinic has a lab, which allows for proper screening for diseases and reliable diagnosis. They currently have 42 beds available and 14 full-time employees to attend to patients. Jack has also built partnerships with national hospitals to ensure that patients who are severely ill can be referred or transferred for more specialized care. In keeping with their mission of providing access to quality and affordable healthcare to all in rural Kenya, Mama Clinic currently manages two satellite clinics in two other remote districts in the country.

Beyond what the facility provides, Mama Clinic also conducts Community Health Outreach programs where volunteers walk from village to village providing free health screenings and treatment to the villagers who cannot go to the facility.

“No other child should have a loved one die to a Neglected Tropical Disease (NTD), and mothers need a safe place to deliver their babies near their homes” says Jack. “My experiences as a child shaped my dreams. I knew I wanted to be a doctor… a doctor who wants to make a difference in his community because I don’t want to see another child go through what I had to go through, to live without the care and love of a parents”he explains in his Youtube video for Mama Clinic.

A mother and child at Mama Clinic.

Unfortunately he’s up against a number of obstacles. The high rates of malnutrition and the broken health care system in Kenya make people vulnerable to contracting NTDs.

Right now Kenya lacks operating facilities, medication and professionals. A mere 4,300 doctors currently work in the public healthcare sector for the country’s 38.6 million people.

What’s more, in 2017, it was estimated that around 9 million people in the country are undernourished, according to a report released by the United Nations last year. Severe malnutrition stunts growth and makes children more susceptible to diseases because it weakens their immune systems. High rates of malnutrition are also affecting almost 40,000 pregnant and nursing mothers in Kenya and their babies.

Malnutrition in childhood and pregnancy can be very dangerous. Women who are malnourished while pregnant face higher risks of mortality during labor and premature births. These are exactly the types of problems Jack’s Mama Clinic is trying to address by bringing a functioning health care facility full of professionals to his underserved community. His initiative makes screenings and treatment more accessible, which in turn is helping combat these treatable health problems.

Jack knows that in order to offer the most comprehensive health care, he’s got to flesh out his education even more.

Jack with a young patient.

That’s why he’s currently attending Michigan State University where he’s studying public health and nutrition, and focusing on the epidemiology of diseases and their relation to nutrition. He wants to learn how poor nutrition can make it easier for people to contract NTDs, because that’s such a huge problem in rural Kenya.

His next step is to become a medical doctor so he can acquire the expertise and experience to better attend to his patients, expand Mama Clinic’s work and run it long term.

He knows that this knowledge is essential for him to run the best health clinic he can and ultimately save more lives in his community.

But perhaps what’s most rewarding for Jack is seeing how his  dedication to education is inspiring other kids in his village to follow in his footsteps.

As the first person in his village to go to college, he hopes his story will also lead to more of them attending university. “It became my dream to give that hope to other people,” he says.

Despite growing up in challenging conditions, living in a slum and losing his parents at a young age, he exceeded expectations at school, received a full ride fellowship to Watson University and has represented Kenya through the Young African Leaders Initiative. Needless to say, he’s a prime example of what hard work and dedication can lead to.

Sometimes the best motivation is overcoming the most difficult of experiences. If anyone is a testament to that, it’s Jack.

“If you have dreams and are willing to pursue them, there is a way out of poverty.”

Her male classmates weren’t thrilled about women engineers.

This blog post was originally posted on Upworthy.com as part of a project with Girls’ Globe, Upworthy and Johnson & Johnson.

When Aya Mouallem took her first software engineering class, she had a rude awakening: she wasn’t exactly welcome.

As one of two girls in the class of over 20 students, she felt out of place right away. And this was only made worse by the comments she’d hear from her male classmates.

“[They] said, ‘it’s no wonder there aren’t a lot of girls in [electrical and computer engineering] . . . because girls are bad at math.’ They casually mention[ed] phrases like, ‘we were happy without girls in this major,’” Aya recalls.

Unfortunately, comments like these weren’t exactly new for Aya.

She had been interested in STEM from a very young age. “I never really felt interested in playing with dolls as much as I loved to know how stuff worked,” she says. And while her immediate family had been supportive of her interests in STEM — calling her the ‘thinker’ in the family — she had faced a lot of sexism from other family members, acquaintances, classmates, and even staff at her university.

That didn’t hold her back, though. Since Aya’s parents encouraged her to ask questions and be curious, she kept pursuing her passion. When smartphones became available, for example, she eagerly explored how they worked and became her family’s go-to ‘tech support’.

But Aya knows that many girls don’t get that kind of encouragement.

“A lot of other girls were forbidden by their parents from pursuing ECE because it wasn’t ‘feminine’ by societal standards,” she explains.

Aya knew that, as a result, girls weren’t getting the same opportunities to explore technology as boys their age. For example, boys were more likely to be called to help change a lightbulb or to see how a car works, “but girls were supposed to stay busy with their dolls,” says Aya.

So girls who might have a knack for STEM were being discouraged from exploring a field they might otherwise be passionate about later in life.

“Their implications are very dangerous,” she explains. “There’s a lot to be done when it comes to raising awareness to gender inequality in STEM.”

That’s why in March 2017, Aya teamed up with Maya Moussa, another classmate studying computer engineering, to empower girls to explore STEM.

They created All Girls Code, a project that provides girls between the ages of 12 and 19 in Lebanon with access to STEM fields through mentorship programs and other opportunities.

 

“We wanted to give girls the opportunity to try hands-on STEM workshops before they have to choose a university major,” Aya says.

It wouldn’t be easy, though. At first, they struggled to get funding for the project. Since All Girls Code doesn’t generate revenue, it was hard to get the financial support that the project needed. So to get it off the ground, “we [first] reached out to the local community through our university, our phone contacts and people we’ve networked with at tech events,” she explains.

Luckily, their hard work paid off. They were able to get support from their university, the American University of Beirut, which provided a space for the workshops. Aya and Maya also recruited over 100 volunteers to support All Girls Code as instructors, graphic designers, photographers, moviemakers, and administrators.

Now in its second year, All Girls Code is continuing its mission with its flagship summer program, Tech Immersion.

The program focuses on three goals in particular: skills, exposure, and sisterhood.

For the development of technical skills, All Girls Code has created a curriculum that allows girls to use code to help improve health, the environment, and other fields.

In sponsoring hackathons, for example — events where the girls collaborate to create software or hardware for a specific purpose — they learn to apply their technical skills to solve real-world problems. These hackathons also provide girls with opportunities to learn how to pitch their ideas and network.

 

The girls are also given mentorship opportunities, working directly with women in the industry. Through the program, they’ve learned about Lebanese women entrepreneurs, the latest trends in tech and Silicon Valley, and which ‘tech titans’ in the industry they should be familiar with.

To ensure they’re reaching a diverse group of girls, all events by All Girls Code are free of charge.

“We’ve been proud to welcome girls from more than ten countries, including public school students, refugees, and private school students,” says Aya.

In a field dominated by men, Aya believes that sisterhood plays a critical role in the mission of All Girls Code.

“It was important for us to nurture this bonding between them over STEM, just like they would bond over dolls,” she explains. Working together to develop their ideas and participating in icebreakers are just some of the ways in which these girls are able to connect with each other.

 

That’s why Aya wants to expand All Girls Code to be worldwide, impacting an even greater number of girls. While over 200 girls have participated so far, she hopes that in the future, there will be thousands.

After all, it was the support of other women in the field that helped her find her way, too.

“When girls try tech together, they feel that they are not outsiders,”she says.And through her work at All Girls Code, she’s hopeful for a future in which girls in STEM never again feel out of place again.

Gabrielle Rocha Rios co-authored this post with Sam Dylan Finch.

The personal reason this superwoman has dedicated her life to Indigenous midwifery

This blog post was originally posted on Upworthy.com as part of a project with Girls’ Globe, Upworthy and Johnson & Johnson.

Claire Dion Fletcher was taking a class in Women’s Studies as part of her undergraduate program when she first realized she wanted to become a midwife.

She was writing a paper on the decline of midwifery and the medicalization of birth in Ontario, when she started thinking about whether or not midwifery was even practiced anymore. It didn’t take long before Claire found that the answer was ‘yes’ along with a lot more information on the subject from the Association of Ontario Midwives and the Ryerson Midwifery Education programme.

The more she read, the more confident she became about wanting to become a midwife herself. She had always been interested in health care, and especially women taking an active role in their health, so midwifery seemed like the perfect fit.

But it wasn’t just an academic interest — Claire also had a personal connection to health care and midwifery.

Claire is Potawatomi-Lenape, and she wanted to help Indigenous women like herself take an active role in their health care. She thinks that Indigenous women should have access to an Indigenous midwife if they want, because their Aboriginal identity is something that “cannot be replicated or taught”.

Despite the differences in experiences of Indigenous people, Claire explains that they share an ongoing experience of assimilation. Indigenous people also typically don’t have access to as comprehensive health care as other groups in Canada.

But one of the biggest challenges Indigenous people face is that “[they] have the poorest health outcomes compared to any other group in Canada”, Claire explains.

And there are studies to support Claire’s claim. In a report by the National Collaboration for Aboriginal Health, health indicators show a higher burden of disease or health disparities among Indigenous people than among non-Aboriginal Canadians. And there isn’t just a gap in health outcomes, there is also a gap in data which makes it more difficult to address the situation.

What’s more, women often get the shortest end of the proverbial stick, “due to the intersecting effects of colonization, race, sex and gender,” notes Claire.

This is why people like her are so important — Claire recognizes that there’s a lot about the state of maternal health that needs to change.

“Our families deserve Indigenous midwifery care that meets all their health needs, our people deserve access to health care in a place where they feel safe and respected, where they will be listened to and their concerns taken seriously.”

Thankfully, Claire found a way to actively work towards that change – she became a registered midwife who specifically caters to Indigenous women.

Claire Dion-Fletcher receiving the Iewirokwas Cape Award for Midwifery Heroes from the Toronto Birth Centre on February 16. Photo via Ryerson University.
But she does much more than deliver babies.Claire holds several other positions that help propel her mission forward.

She sits on the core leadership of the National Aboriginal Council of Midwives, where she works on several projects to expand Indigenous midwifery and enhance midwifery education. She also supports increased access to culturally safe educational opportunities through her role as an Aboriginal student coordinator at the Ryerson Midwifery Education Program, which is also where she got her midwifery certificate.

And Claire’s constantly researching decolonized health care and Indigenous midwifery, too. One of her most interesting findings so far is the unique approach that Indigenous midwives bring to health care.

“Indigenous midwifery provides clinically excellent care that incorporates an Indigenous understanding of health and world view,” writes Claire.

Ultimately her mission is to recover Indigenous practices while trying to improve overall health and wellbeing of Indigenous people and fight against the ongoing impacts of colonization and assimilation.

Photo by Claire Dion Fletcher @cgdionfletch

And Claire and the National Aboriginal Council of Midwives share another important goal — to have at least one Aboriginal midwife in each Aboriginal community.

That’s why she lobbies for the expansion of Indigenous content in university programs and the growth of Indigenous midwifery in Ontario.

“I see all of these as a part of Indigenous midwifery and part of our responsibility as Indigenous midwives to serve our communities,” she notes.

Since she’s involved  with so many projects, it’s impressive that Claire finds the energy to keep up her work, but the strength and resiliency of her Indigenous clients help her stay motivated.

And her goal for the future of Indigenous health care in Canada is a powerful motivator as well.

She wants to help build a health care system that is focused on the clients, in order to meet the needs of the people actually using the system. She also wants to make Indigenous midwifery is more accessible, and make it easier for Indigenous people to become midwives themselves.

To achieve this, she will keep lobbying for a fairer health care system and increased recognition for Indigenous midwifery. She hopes her research will also provide her with more tools to improve the situation and spread information about the most pressing issues associated with Indigenous health today.

There’s still a long way to go before we see the necessary changes in place, but with people like Claire in the mix, the chances are good that they’ll happen a lot sooner.

Tilde Holm co-authored this post with Ally Hirschlag.

The Amazing Reason Mothers in India are Giving their Babies Wearable Medical Records

This blog post was originally posted on Upworthy.com as part of a project with Girls’ Globe, Upworthy and Johnson & Johnson.

When Ruchit Nagar’s parents moved to Houston, Texas, in the late 1980s, they had no idea their son would grow up to save children’s lives in their home country of India.

Then again, it wasn’t exactly a total surprise, though, as their son had been interested in global health from a young age. Nagar had loved biology in high school, so he volunteered in American hospitals to learn more about the healthcare system. Later, he went on global health mission trips to Honduras and Ecuador, where he spent time working in a research laboratory at a government-run hospital.

But it was while he was in college, studying at the Yale Center for Engineering Innovation and Design, that he learned a startling truth. 1.5 million children die from vaccine-preventable diseases every year and an estimated 9.5 million infants worldwide still don’t have routine immunization services. Despite how critical these vaccines are, this “vaccination gap” still exists.

Nagar quickly realized that it wasn’t just an issue of access, either. Poor record keeping was making the problem much worse.

An agricultural community in Udaipur, India. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons/TeshTesh

Maintaining immunization data in developing countries is a difficult task. Healthcare workers usually collect and store the information manually in paper log books, which means searching through all that data by hand. Couple that with how often families lose their medical documents and you can see what obstacles providers are up against.

That’s why, after Nagar’s professors asked the question: “What can you do to address the world’s vaccination gap?”, he and a group of other students came up with a business plan that could help address the vaccination gap, while helping healthcare workers too.

This led them to launch a nonprofit called Khushi Baby to help monitor the health care of mothers and children in India.

Khushi Baby (which translates to “Happy Baby” in Hindi) created a culturally-symbolic necklace that also happens to contain their full medical history.It’s a digital, battery-free, waterproof data storage device. In other words, it allows people to literally wear their medical records.

In order to access those medical files, healthcare workers in rural villages just need to scan the necklace with the help of the smartphone Khushi Baby app.

Photo credit: Khushi Baby

So, in a way, this invention is like a child’s medical passport, as well as a visual reminder for mothers to get their babies vaccinated on time.

The team hopes that when mothers and their babies wear their Khushi Baby pendant in the village, it might also start a conversation among mothers who may not be attending health camps regularly. And since Khushi Baby services include voice call reminders in the local dialect, the team is also hopeful that more mothers will plan checkups and vaccinations ahead of time.

Hopefully, this easy-to-use technology will help bridge the healthcare gap that exists between developing nations and the rest of the world.

“I have a reason to get out of bed every morning because I truly believe that what we are doing has the potential to make a difference to improve maternal and child healthcare for those who may otherwise be forgotten,” says Ruchit.

Digitizing vaccination data makes treating patients much easier, and, since the technology is relatively low-cost, it’s accessible even in low-income areas.

But Khushi Baby is about more than access to vaccines. It’s also about giving health workers the data they need to improve their treatment programs.

The technology empowers healthcare providers by allowing them to make better decisions faster. The app’s checkup summary page helps them consolidate patient info from busy health camps, which then helps them make appropriate recommendations and offer the right kind of care.

The Khushi Baby team at work developing technology. Photo credit: Khushi Baby

“Many of our early interactions with mothers and frontline nurses in rural Udaipur [India] showed us that there was an opportunity to do things better,” says Nagar.

Monitoring data is crucial in helping countries prioritize and tailor vaccination strategies for each region. The app also comes in handy for medically-focused nonprofits because it helps them monitor the impact of their work, ensuring the success of their immunization programs.

Of course, for the Khushi Baby app to work, people have to actually use it. That’s why Nagar chose to make it a necklace.

He tapped into a cultural norm in India to get locals interested in wearing his smart device. The black thread around the necklace is traditionally worn across India to ward off buri nazar, or evil eye. It’s said to bring good health and fortune.

“By observing that children were wearing jewelry in rural Udaipur, we realized that we could slot our technology into something that was already culturally-symbolic and accepted by the communities. In doing so, it made our wearable less likely to be lost or forgotten,” he explains.

A woman in India wearing the Khushi Baby necklace. Photo credit: Khushi Baby.

So far, the Khushi Baby app is operating in over 350 villages and tracking the health of over 15,000 mothers and their babies.

And they’re not stopping there.

Khushi Baby aims to scale its impact to over 1000+ villages with a team of over 250 health workers. They hope to track the health of over 80,000 beneficiaries in the future.

Photo credit: Khushi Baby

“Closing the vaccination gap will require national and multinational resources and efforts,” says Nagar. “Our goal is to track the health of the entire district of Udaipur by 2020 and lay down the blueprint for other districts across India (and elsewhere) to replicate and scale-up.”

It’s no surprise Khushi Baby was named as one of the finalists of the GenH Challenge, which acknowledges and awards innovative solutions to worldwide health issues.

Khushi baby is on the verge of transforming lives for the better in areas that desperately need the help.

It all started with a simple but powerful idea — that everyone, no matter where they are in the world, deserves the chance to thrive. Thanks to innovators like Nagar, that possibility is closer than ever.

And with technology like this leading the way, we might someday live in a world where no mother or child is left behind.

Preeti Shakya co-authored this post with Maisha Z. Johnson.