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Student uses skills to thwart public health threat in Kenya

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Villagers in Bumula, Kenya

When the Honors Program at Mercyhurst University encouraged its students to amp up their involvement with community service, sophomore accounting major Sister Bernadette Kele accepted the challenge and took it one step — or 7,622 miles — farther.

She is working from her Mercyhurst home to help resolve a serious public health threat in her native Kenya. 

It all began in 2013 during a visit home to the village of Bumula. There Sr. Kele learned from two of her fellow Little Sisters of St. Francis about a serious infestation of tiny parasitic fleas plaguing their small village. Known as “jiggers,” the parasites had become so invasive that many children had become ill and were missing school.

This type of parasite originates in tropical and sub-tropical climates, particularly in homes where families share living spaces with livestock and poultry. Combined with a lack of resources for maintaining good hygiene, the fleas multiply unchecked. Left untreated, they burrow into exposed skin and cause sores that result in bacterial infections that, in extreme cases, can lead to loss of limbs or even death.

Most of the 10,000 residents of Bumula are affected by the infestation, and many can neither afford nor access medical care.

“This infestation incapacitates people, and it also incapacitates the children, keeping them from gaining an education,” said Sr. Kele. “Bumula is a poor village, and these people can only be empowered to have a better life through education. That is why I am drawn to this cause — I want to empower them to pursue the education they need, especially about hygiene.”

So moved by the villagers’ plight, Sr. Kele took the interpersonal and management skills she’s learned at Mercyhurst to advocate for them. She met with village leaders and healthcare workers, amassed volunteers, and is now leading a two-phase plan to raise $20,000 – albiet remotely.

Phase one involves raising awareness, networking and rallying additional volunteers while collecting funds and medical supplies. Treating the village’s population is estimated at $16,251.

Phase two involves cementing the floors of 60 local classrooms in the village’s 12 schools to impede the fleas from breeding there. This phase is expected to cost about $3,500 and benefit nearly 3,000 children.

Sr. Kele is currently working from her Mercyhurst home with a team in Bumula. While on campus, she hopes to raise funds that she can send to the group. Susan Johnson, director of the Honors Program at Mercyhurst, anticipates traveling to Kenya with Sr. Kele this summer to check on the project’s progress and provide support.

Sr. Kele asks that anyone who would like to donate to this cause, please e-mail Susan Johnson or call 824-3370.