Two days after she graduates this May, Mary Kate Wise ‘12 will get on a plane and head to Ghana, a place across the world but close to her heart after taking several trips to the country during her time at William & Mary.
There, she and about a dozen other students from the Student Partnership for International Medical Aid (SPIMA) will help a community construct a public toilet – a much-needed public health commodity.
The project is being sponsored in part through a community engagement grant that Wise received through the College’s Office of Community Engagement and Scholarship (OCES). The grant is one of many that were recently awarded to students to conduct a variety of service projects – from teaching English to people in Vietnam to helping with flood mitigation in the Dominican Republic -- throughout the summer.
In addition to Wise, this year’s grant recipients and their projects include: Taylor Nelson Ferris ‘13, Ashoka Ireland; Christine Johnson ‘13, Social Entrepreneur Corps Guatemala; Kristin Giordano ‘14, Medical Aid Nicaragua: Outreach Scholarship (MANOS); Taylor Coyner ‘13; Outreach 360 in Nicaragua; Melissa Alim ‘14, Student Organization for Medical Outreach & Sustainability (SOMOS) in the Dominican Republic; Mary Grech ‘14, Ubelong in Vietnam; Jen Posner ‘14, Campus Kitchen at William and Mary; Janice Van ‘12, Habitat for Humanity ReStore in Williamsburg; Emily Mahoney ‘15, Social Entrepreneur Corps Ecuador; Kara Kolbe ‘12, Bosnia Project and Creativus; Lauren Weiss ‘14, Social Entrepreneur Corps Guatemala; Shan Davis ‘13, Southerners on New Ground (SONG) in Williamsburg; Jackie Carroll ‘13, Stop the Surry Coal Plant in Surry, Va.; Grace Martini ‘14, School House; Emma Merrill ‘13, Students Helping Honduras; Molly McMahan ‘15, Pittsburgh Promise; Ashley Pettway ‘14, Martin Luther King Memorial Library in Washington, D.C.; and Alex Cooper ‘13, Labis in Belgrade, Serbia.
“This winter, OCES staff member Elizabeth Miller, Austin Pryor and I honed our application and review process so that our funding is focused on sustainable social justice projects in Williamsburg, around the U.S. and the world,” said Melody Porter, assistant director of OCES. “We are grateful for the partnership of private funders who are invested in projects, like that of SPIMA, that make a positive impact in communities and offer deep student learning in the process.”
A Trip Transformed
Wise began her work in Ghana as a sophomore through a SPIMA trip offered through the Branch Out alternative breaks program. During that trip, she and other team members helped provide mobile medical clinics to communities in Ghana.
During her junior year, Wise again went on the trip, this time as its leader. After that second trip, Wise and her co-leader Gloria Driessnack ’13 reflected on the experience and began discussing the trip’s effectiveness. They decided that though helpful for some short-term problems, the clinics did not offer any long-term solutions. They were “a Band-Aid solution to a huge gaping wound,” said Wise.
Wise and Driessnack decided to address that wound by first getting to understand it better. So, on their next trip, they started collecting data about the people who attended the clinics.
Last summer, with the help of another community engagement grant, Wise travelled back to Ghana to conduct more research. She and Driessnack were there for five weeks, and they interviewed more than 600 people. The two asked them about the biggest health issues the Ghanaians saw in their communities and what solutions they thought would be the most helpful.
During their research, Wise and Driessnack discovered that Ghana has a national health insurance plan that is very affordable, so many people actually have access to health care.
“We didn’t know that until last summer,” said Wise. “Can you imagine not knowing something that big about health and still trying to help people?”
In addition, they found that the rural communities often lack bathrooms – a fact that the SPIMA team had missed on previous trips because they had always stayed in hotels.
“People just go anywhere because there are no bathrooms or toilets at all,” said Wise. “Flies carry it to food, and when it rains, it gets into the water. Sanitation is actually one of the building blocks to good health. If you fix that, you fix so many problems.”
Based on their research, Wise and Driessnack reorganized the trip so that it now focuses on one community and building it a public toilet, which is something the community members had requested.
Most of the money from the community engagement grant is going to building materials for the toilet. The team of 14 from William & Mary will help with its construction, but work on the site is already being conducted by members of the Ghanaian community.
“We really want the community to have ownership,” said Wise.
The SPIMA team will be in Ghana for about three and a half weeks this summer, and their goal is to finish the toilet before they leave.
Wise is grateful to OCES for providing the grants that allowed her to reorganize the trip so that it would provide “meaningful solution to the problems” that she has seen in Ghana.
“I wouldn’t be able to do the work I did without (the grants),” she said. “It takes that extra mile. A lot of people go on a service trip and think, ‘Oh, that’s great,’ but you really need to do research on the community and realize that they know their needs better than you do.”
Although this is the last trip to Ghana for Wise as a William & Mary student, it will not be her last trip to the country.
“I want to keep doing this,” said Wise, who plans on studying public health in graduate school. “I know these people, and I see this need that wants to be fulfilled.”
As for her busy Commencement week – graduation followed by a flight to Ghana – Wise said it is the “perfect way” to end her time at the College.
“Or to start a new chapter,” she said.