Out of Africa

    Sometimes, a simple idea can go a long way. That is what Eleanor Roosevelt College junior Ben Thomas, who is spending this year abroad in Ghana, recently discovered after witnessing a heartbreaking situation.

    Shortly after his arrival at the University of Ghana in August, he met with the president of the university’s Rotary Club to see how he could help. The president wanted to make a small donation to the children’s block of the Korle-Bu Hospital, knowing that the conditions there were bad. They were hoping to give a couple hundred dollars worth of food. Thomas and other members of the club visited the hospital, but they were not prepared for what they saw.

    Because it is a public hospital, it receives little funding, and consequently it serves the poorest of Ghana. Since it opened in 1965, the children’s block has not had any maintenance or refurbishment to the building or its facilities. The equipment was in poor condition, broken or nonexistent. Overcrowding was a serious problem. The hospital’s capacity is just over 100, but there are always 220 to 250 children in the ward. Because of the lack of space and beds, two small, single beds are usually pushed together for four or five children with different illnesses to share. The bed sheets were often wet because there are no replacements; in fact, they were sewn from old nurses’ uniforms.

    Mothers were forced to sit on hard metal chairs, some holding convulsing children, others with intravenous infusions, because there was no bed space. Children on oxygen suffered from broken oxygen tubes. Nurses administered treatment with makeshift equipment that was held together with plaster. Babies were X-rayed by a machine without lead protection. Leaks, holes and rot were everywhere, making the situation even more pitiful and the hopelessness more poignant. This was due not to a lack of expertise, but a lack of resources, which have a negative impact on staff morale. Even the Ghanaians were shocked by the conditions.

    “”The conditions were appalling, by any standard,”” Thomas said. “”We immediately were motivated to rectify this awful situation. We knew we had to do far more than just give a couple of hundred dollars worth of food.””

    The poor conditions would have significant consequences. Many sick children are turned away due to a lack of facilities, and they often died without any treatment. Even for those who do receive medical attention, the death rate is very high. The staff must watch the children suffer and die or slowly recover with residual disabilities. Furthermore, high death rates break family ties and the infrastructure that holds together much of Ghanaian society. When a child is sick, the child — and usually a parent — cannot contribute to the family’s income. As a result, the family is impoverished and economic development is impeded.

    The Rotary Club came up with a plan and formed a committee made up of four Ghanaians and two Americans, including Thomas as its director, to work on the project. Thomas linked with Rotarians back home in the Bay Area to write a grant for over $50,000 from the Rotary Foundation. All of the funds will be used to purchase much-needed medical equipment for the hospital. The committee has also planned a two-day weekend clean up and painting of the hospital for February, which will include over 100 participants each day. The money for this event will also come from the funds. Following the clean up, it plans on having visits every Saturday until May, in which eight to 10 people will chat, read and play with the children in an effort to raise their spirits and give them real hope, which will be backed by adequate medical equipment. Visitors will also bring toys and books purchased with the funds.

    After the hospital has been cleaned and painted, the committee will hold a formal presentation of the equipment to the hospital. Among the attendees will be members of the press, the minister of health, local members of Parliament; and Sam Okudzeto, director of Rotary International, one of the largest, most credible and renowned charitable organizations in the world.

    The project has been quite successful thus far. Help has come from all over the world; the committee has received over $6,000 in private donations from more than 60 donors. Those who have made contributions either know Thomas, have heard about the project through word of mouth or from the project’s Web site, and were eager to donate as soon as they learned of it. In addition, the Rotary Club of Foster City, Calif., (Thomas’ hometown) has pledged over $20,000, and Rotary District 5150 has pledged over $14,000. The Rotary Foundation will match most of these funds, bringing the total to over $50,000. The International Center at UCSD also gave $580 as its annual Christmas Giving.

    Thomas is also looking forward to a visit from his family in February, who will be bringing medical supplies.

    He has also been deeply touched by the project. “”[It] will soon be realized and [its] success will be due to so many hardworking and generous people,”” he said. “”The experience has already been rewarding and I have felt so uplifted by the outpouring of compassion and generosity from so many people. I’ve learned that one idea, if followed with motivation and perseverance, can have a profound impact.””

    Thomas’ fellow committee members have also been moved.

    “”It has been wonderful to work with these outstanding people and we’re happy that a majority of the committee is Ghanaian,”” Thomas said.

    He recognizes that many of the skills learned through the process will remain in Ghana. “”They have personally told me how happy they are to be serving others,”” he said. “”They recognize they are making a lot of sacrifices as far as their time, effort and personal expense, but they truly believe it is worthwhile.””

    For more information and updates on the project and how to donate, go to http://www.pierside.org/korle-bu. To learn more about Rotary International, visit http://www.rotary.org.

    Photos courtesy of Ben Thomas

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