The medical clinic in Lundamatwe village in Tanzania looked more like a barn to California Lutheran University senior Ryan McAllister with its red wooden walls and corrugated metal roof.
Inside, the clinic was in shambles: The floors were dusty and there was no electricity, just a gas-powered cooler to store immunizations, the 23-year-old biology student recalled.
“When you go into a hospital here, there’s technology ... there’s things set up so you can treat the patient right away,” McAllister said. “There, it was discombobulated. There was nothing there.”
The experience led him to organize his own service effort on the CLU campus to benefit Lundamatwe village. With the help of the student group American Medical Student Association, McAllister raised $500, which funded a young Tanzanian woman’s college education to become a teacher. The students also collected donations of shoes and clothes.
But McAllister didn’t stop there. His father, an orthopedic surgeon in Washington, helped gather expired but still safe-to-use medical supplies, such as cast plaster, bandages and child delivery kits. In all, the donated goods filled eight duffel bags, which McAllister hand-delivered to the villagers in January when he returned for a week.
“I got the most joy out of giving out the clothes and shoes. They’re little kids and super cute and super thankful,” he said. “That’s where I decided I wanted to work with Project Kesho more ... and come back and do something on my own.”
McAllister first visited Tanzania last summer for a volunteer trip with Project Kesho, a Washington-based nonprofit dedicated to improving East African communities through the education of children. He was meant to stay for only a few weeks to build playgrounds for schoolchildren. He found himself taken by the people there. In particular, McAllister mentioned how some of the kids in the village would watch him and other volunteers as they dug holes for the playground. During the volunteers’ breaks, the kids would take their shovels and start digging.
Because of his interest in medicine, villagers introduced McAllister to the local doctor, Aman Kisimba, and he was given a tour of the village’s medical clinic. After seeing the building’s condition, McAllister asked Kisimba what could he could do to make the doctor’s job easier.
“After seeing the clinic, I realized I could make a substantial difference in people’s lives,” he said. “I made it my mission, I’m like, ‘I’m coming back as soon as possible.’ ”
McAllister enlisted the help of classmate Beatriz Kowalski, co-president of American Medical Student Association. The group, made up of 100 students, collected clothing donations at their churches and donated 60 percent of their club T-shirt proceeds to Project Kesho. The one-day bake sale raised $400. All the money would pay for one young woman’s teaching college, a rare opportunity in the region.
“When we heard this made a difference in this girl’s life, I was elated. ... All our hard work paid off in some small way,” said Kowalski, a senior biology student. “These are kids in an entire village that needed our help. ... I’m really glad we were able to participate in this.”
Elliot Barnes, Project Kesho’s executive director, said McAllister’s effort makes a big different for his small organization.
“No one has taken the initiative on their own to talk to a medical hospital and gotten materials and taken it over themselves,” Barnes said. “It’d be great if it continued, it’s a great program.
“It’s actually a big pain to haul all that stuff around. And 50 pounds of shoes is a lot of shoes.”
McAllister said he found a certain peace about being “off the grid” and serving in Tanzania, in particular, Lundamatwe village.
“I definitely see myself going back for the rest of my life,” he said.
--- Published in the Ventura County Star on April 5, 2013