June 16th, 2008

Reflections on Inspiring Moments

Last month I traveled with a photographer to Africa as part of a trip organized by Johnson & Johnson’s contributions team to meet with partners whose health and education programs we support. I take such trips from time to time as one way of chronicling our charitable work “in the field” for our employees and others. Beyond that, though, these trips give me and my traveling buddies a chance to see firsthand what our “on-the-ground” partners are doing to help us save and improve lives, prevent diseases, and build health care capacity for those who need it most.  By any definition, this was a trip filled with physically exhausting travel and a steady dose of emotional moments, as many of these journeys tend to be. What gets to me most are the seemingly insurmountable circumstances that face our fellow brethren day in and day out – and particularly the children (many the age of mine!) living in squalor and struggling with diseases such as polio that have long been eradicated in the developed world. Or, the many disenfranchised women and children who, for a variety of social and political reasons, aren’t given the opportunity to learn in formal educational settings. Among all this despair are stories of hope and aspiration, driven by large and small NGOs and community leaders – or, as I like to describe them, angels on earth. A few examples… 

Mtakuja Secondary School

a_mg_9583.jpgIn the outskirts of Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania, 100 teenage girls – all dressed in green and white uniforms – welcomed us with songs and a play during the initial minutes of our visit to Mtakuja Secondary School, which runs an education and mentoring program supported by the Academy for Educational Development (AED) and Johnson & Johnson. The girls, all with glowing smiles and sparkling energy, thanked us for the chance to learn and grow in a welcoming environment. Many of the students travel up to three hours EACH way, EVERY day, walking several kilometers back and forth to school as they watch small, crowded buses with adult passengers pass them by routinely. Children pay 50 schillings to ride the bus; adults pay 300. Looking to make as much as they can, bus drivers often ignore the children and pick up adults instead. I asked several students what motivates them to travel up to six hours roundtrip to school each day. a_mg_9735.jpgWithout hesitation, each said the opportunity to learn and to become a success.  On this warm day, classroom teaching included the typical subjects plus a health session on HIV/AIDS prevention and a leadership and empowerment lesson, complete with lively questions and answers. The teachers and our partners at AED do amazing work here, and the students said as much, and more.

Johnson & Johnson Burn Treatment Center  

Nearly 20 years ago, Johnson & Johnson worked with Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital in Soweto, South Africa, to open the country’s first treatment center dedicated solely to handling severe burns. Many communities in and around Soweto use open fires or highly flammable fuels to cook meals and, as a result, many suffer severe burns from accidents. a_mg_0099.jpg
This center treats approximately 1,500 people annually, many of whom are children – and some as young as 12 months. I had heard about this center years ago and had promised myself that if my travels ever brought me to South Africa, I would visit. This visit turned out to be one of the most emotional experiences I’ve ever had. a_mg_0063.jpgThe center includes a pediatrics ward for children recovering from scalding burns – many from accidents, a few from abuse. In one of the recovery rooms, I heard a baby boy – perhaps 12-14 months old – crying inconsolably, writhing in pain from burns covering half of his small face, neck and left arm. The parent in me took over … I approached the crib and reached for his hand. He grabbed my index finger and held tightly, as he stopped crying and began to smile. He brought me to tears, as I thought about the traumatic experience and circumstances that led this tiny boy to this place. I stayed with him for awhile, reflecting on what his life might have been had this center not existed. Surely, he would have died. Despite his misfortune and severe injuries, he will survive – and thrive – thanks to the work and passion of the center’s nurses and doctors. This place is recognized as a center of excellence in South Africa and sub-Saharan Africa, and for good reason. Literally, the center’s team has saved thousands of lives over the years. More angels on earth…


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