Sara Hearon

Student aims to make a difference in rural Kenya

Sara carrying with others food to the day care

When Sara Hearon arrived in Wagusu, Kenya, she was troubled by the amount of health hazards that plagued the small village of a thousand.  Little did she know that before returning to the U.S., she would not only personally invest her resources to help the village, but also be given the opportunity to present to community leaders ways to improve the serious public health issues she found.

Hearon, a graduate student at the Texas A&M School of Public Health’s Department of Environmental and Occupational Health, spent six weeks in poverty stricken Wagusu where most families live in houses made of mud.  She completed an internship with a local Kenyan organization called the Kenya Voluntary and Community Development Project, identifying and in some cases, developing interventions on some of the most dire public health issues in the African village.

“The village faces so many issues compared to more developed areas; it was overwhelming and difficult to know what to tackle first,” Hearon said. “So I completed an environmental assessment of the community to help the Kenya Voluntary and Community Development Project direct their short- and long-term goals.”

At the top of the list was the toxic local water supply for the community. Wagusu sits on a hill next to Lake Victoria, one of the African Great Lakes, and most villagers draw their water unfiltered from it. The lake is seriously contaminated for many reasons, including gold mining.

“The miners use mercury to bind gold particles together, and discharge from this process gets washed into Lake Victoria,” Hearon said. “Most individuals in Wagusu don't know that direct contact with mercury is toxic.”

A typical day at Lake Victoria, where villagers clean dishes and mine for gold, among other daily tasks. The villagers use water from Lake Victoria to cook, bathe and drink, so they are potentially being exposed to mercury on a daily basis.

Another major issue Hearon found is, because of a lack of running water in Wagusu, close to 60 percent of the villagers don’t have access to bathrooms, contributing to the spread of infectious disease.  As a result, Hearon began work on a roofed community sanitation center with showers, hand-washing stations and latrines so villagers could have easier access to hygiene services.

“I personally funded ‘The Toilet Project’, as we eventually called it, by hiring contractors and buying the necessary materials,” Hearon said. “I was also involved in planning and helped lay the foundation for the building.”

Hearon ended up funding the entire project with her own money.

“It was something that was doable for me and the community really needed,” Hearon said.

HIV is very prevalent in the community, and one of the main focuses of the organization she worked for is a day care with about 40 children that are the most vulnerable in the village. Approximately half of the day care’s children are HIV positive. They are fed twice daily and provided an education to prepare them for primary school. Hearon would usually spend her mornings at the day care making breakfast or teaching English and personally contributed her resources by sponsoring one of the children.

“I would wake up, walk approximately two miles to the day care center, and help out there,” Hearon said. “Then in the afternoons I participated in community assessments by visiting people in their homes and at work.”

Towards the end of her six weeks in Africa, Hearon was asked to present to community leaders her findings of the most serious health issues facing the community.

In addition to the unfiltered water supply and sanitary issues, she explained in the presentation that villagers cooking inside their mud homes without ventilation are contributing to increases in respiratory diseases. Also, due to the lack of trash cans, most of the garbage ends up on the street, which consequently is affecting the soil and the water.

“My life has been tremendously impacted by my time in Wagusu,” Hearon said. “There is still a lot of work to be done, and I look forward to working on more projects to help their community in the future.”