Fourteen years ago, Dr Chuck Erickson retired and sought new adventures.
He found them 8,600 miles away, at a hospital in Livingstone, Zambia.
A 37-year career in general and behavioral pediatrics made him eminently qualified to tackle health issues.
But it didn’t fully prepare him for what he would experience during the six-week visit to a country where basic necessities are woefully lacking.
“I signed over twenty death certificates in six weeks. What I saw in the health of children was just pathetic,” said Erickson, the beneficiary of a Yale University scholarship that led to his first visit in 2005.
The glimmer of hope that came out of that first visit was that most of the conditions were deemed preventable – but it would take a Herculean effort to fight the ravages of malnutrition, malaria and AIDS in a country whose 14 million people live on less than $1 per day.
Or, more to the point, exist on less than a dollar a day.
Determined to make a difference, the Lincoln East Rotary Club (Nebraska, US) member turned to officers of Rotary District 5650, who pledged manpower and money to set up a medical clinic and focus on clean water and nutritional education.
It wasn’t long before Rotary District 5650, whose area of service includes Lincoln’s three clubs, pledged its support, and Rotary International also chose to get involved in what had originated in Lincoln, Nebraska.
Erickson soon found himself making repeat trips to Zambia, eventually taking along fellow Rotarians who saw the need and wanted the firsthand experience of making a world of difference.
“To see the malnourished babies was devastating … it still is,” said Erickson, “not to mention the inadequate hospital care,” exacerbated by poor water quality.
The Rotarians’ Zambia Project began with the sponsorship of an eye clinic and small projects designed to support orphanages.
Fourteen years and nine trips to Zambia later, Erickson and his team of fellow volunteers have a better handle on the most effective approaches to help the African country the size of Texas.
The project is funding clean water, agricultural projects and nutritional education.
“We need to do a better job of making villagers aware of the importance of early childhood nutrition,” he observed.
“There’s a critical need for infants receiving a variety of foods at about six months, when they’re expanding their diets.”
Dorothy Zimmerman RN, a Beatrice Rotary Club member who’s made several visits to Zambia, said her trips to the country have heightened her appreciation for something we take for granted: clean water.
In a land where a mud hole is considered a source of water, “Zambians wash their clothes in water we wouldn’t even consider using,” testified the Beatrice volunteer.
In a country with limited eating utensils, there is also the issue of sanitation concerns at mealtime.
Given the condition of the water, hand-washing prior to every meal can be an adventure, said Zimmerman. “You tend to take a lot of hand sanitizer with you when you go.”
Rotarians are excited by the inroads they’re making in the area of clean water development, thanks in part to a four-year, $150,000 Rotary International Foundation grant.
That said, one of the keys is to effectively teach the rural villagers how to manage the newly-dug wells through learning how to maintain them.
“We need to do a better job of making the villagers aware of the importance of early childhood nutrition,” Erickson observed.
“Zambian children suffer from a widespread lack of linear growth as well as being underweight.”
Zimmerman marvels at the general attitudes found in a country where 80% of rural-area residents lack the income to meet their basic food requirements.
“They’re always happy to see us,” added Erickson, a past recipient of the Rotary Foundation Citation for meritorious service and the Nebraska Wesleyan University Alumni Humanitarian Award.
“They’re happier than we are. It’s not what you own, it’s who you love.”
Rotary District 5650 Governor Gary Bren of Omaha marvels at the progress Rotarians have made in Zambia since Erickson’s maiden voyage in 2005.
“This has transformed their lives,” Bren reflected. “What our members and others have done to positively affect their journey is really pretty remarkable.”
Rotary District 5650 comprises 2,066 members. Bren said all but five of the district’s 43 clubs have assisted in some way with the project in Zambia.
Erickson and three other Rotarians are leaving soon for another journey to Zambia.
To learn how you can help the Rotary Project in Zambia, send an email to Dr Erickson at firstname.lastname@example.org.