UC students unite to upgrade health clinic in Kenya

Inspiration meets initiative as students from UC's College of Arts and Sciences support Mbakalo Village of Hope

Head shot of Alexandra 'Ali' Ryan

Alexandra 'Ali' Ryan

A small health clinic in rural Kenya started the new year with a bright future, thanks to University of Cincinnati students.

UC College of Arts and Sciences senior Alexandra (Ali) Ryan and her classmates were taking the course "How to Change the World" when they heard about the clinic last semester and were inspired to reach out.

The nonprofit group SOTENI, International runs a clinic called Village of Hope, Mbakalo (pronounced Buh-KAH-lo), that serves a western province of Kenya where more than 55 percent of the population live in poverty. The nonprofit group serves more than 4,600 patients annually, including some with chronic health concerns such as HIV or AIDS. Its maternity ward helps to deliver 20 babies each month – all without an indoor bathroom. 

“The story about the Mbakalo clinic really hit home,” says Ryan, an organizational leadership major. “It was heartbreaking to hear that pregnant women were having to walk out to the outhouse to use the bathroom, where some would fall or even give birth on their way out. I am also currently pregnant, so I could not even imagine what these women and others have to go through.” 

'Anybody can help change the world'

Jon Weller speaking

UC professor Jon Weller teaches the course 'How to Change the World.'

The story of the Mbakalo Clinic wasn’t the only case study students learned about in class that semester. Jon Weller, who teaches the ‘How to Change the World’ course, brings in organizations such as the Peace Corps, the Village Life Outreach Project, Strategies to End Homelessness and more to present to the class, spurring discussion about the challenges they face and the approaches they take to resolve them.  Also part of the class, the Change for Change voluntary donation program gives students a place to donate loose change.

“One of the main themes in the class is that basically anybody can help change the world, and there are a lot of simple things people can do,” says Weller, who is also UC’s Director of International Admissions. “So with Change for Change, the idea is that students can pick a project or organization that they’re interested in supporting … and then they can make donations, or go fundraise, so that at the end of the semester we make a donation to the organization.”

A serendipitous connection

Picture of Jenny Brady smiling at a table

Jenny Brady, executive director SOTENI

The outreach organization SOTENI International was founded some 15 years ago by Victoria Wulsin, professor of family medicine and medical director at UC’s University Health Services. To fulfill its mission of preventing and reducing the effects of HIV/AIDS, the Northside-based nonprofit developed the model of Villages of Hope, designed to empower individuals to improve conditions for their communities. 

Weller’s invitation for SOTENI to present to his ‘How to Change the World’ class was serendipitous, says Executive Director Jenny Brady. SOTENI had launched an initiative to upgrade its Mbakalo Clinic—including installing an indoor toilet—last August. “Right now, there is not a bathroom inside the clinic, and there is a particular need for women who are delivering,” says Brady. “Right now, they have to go outside. It’s close, but it’s a walk, and it’s dangerous.” 

But the project hit an obstacle. “Budget fluctuations caused the cost to rise,” Brady says. “I just kept thinking, ‘we can raise that, we can find that, so we can continue to proceed’ … but I didn’t know where we were going to get it.” 

Inspiration meets initiative

Weller’s students took him by surprise with their enthusiasm and resolve. First, they voted to donate their $350 Change for Change pot to the SOTENI indoor toilet project. That total still left them short by a few hundred dollars. “There was that little click that went off in several students’ minds—‘wow, we’re so close, we could actually raise the rest of the money on our own’,” says Weller. In addition to the other students, “Ali by far took that most ambitiously, raising $250 on her own from family and friends.”

Says Ryan, “I reached out to my family via Facebook, friends via text and co-workers via group email. I explained…that we were working to raise money for this toilet project with SOTENI, what the project involved, and why they were doing it.

“We really do have it good here in the U.S.,” she adds. “We have easy access to clean water, sanitation and so much more we take for granted because we are so used to having them at our fingertips. And it really is so easy to help others. Even if you don’t have money to donate yourself, it is so easy to spread the word.”

Building a brighter future

Construction on a SOTENI indoor toilet project gets underway this month, with completion scheduled before the rainy season begins in mid-spring. This means each year more than 250 expectant mothers, along with the clinic's more than 4,000 other patients, will enjoy rudimentary comfort at the SOTENI Village of Hope Mbakalo. 

“I would just like to reiterate how grateful we are to the students that they did come together," Brady said. "And Ali and a couple of others took this initiative to raise what was needed and beyond.”

For more information, or to make a donation to support the clinic, visit https://www.soteni.org

How can you help?

As part of his How to Change the World course, instructor Jon Weller shares ideas that demonstrate how simple and inexpensive it can be to contribute. Here are some of his top suggestions:

  • Run, walk, bike or even dance for change with Charitymiles.org through their app, https://charitymiles.org. Cost: $0
  • Switch to fair trade coffee. Organic, fair trade K-cups are one of the least expensive options on the shelves. Cost: $0
  • Support nonprofits while shopping online. Choose an organization to support at www.smile.amazon and Amazon will donate a portion of every purchase you make. Cost: $0