Public Health alumna Jessica He, ’13, provides malaria education to communities in remote areas of Gambia

September 26, 2014

Jessica He, '13, pictured at left

The world is a massive place, but being a University of Massachusetts Amherst alumna makes it infinitely smaller. Jessica He, '13, a graduate from the School of Public Health and Health Sciences with a bachelor's degree in public health sciences, can personally vouch for this statement.

One year ago, Jessica traveled to The Gambia for her two-year service as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the health sector. The Gambia is among the least developed and smallest countries in the world. The United Nations Human Development Index - a tool that measures development through indicators of life expectancy, education attainment, and income – ranks The Gambia 165th out of 185 nations. As the smallest country in mainland Africa, The Gambia could even fit inside the state of Massachusetts. What a surprise it was then, when upon landing, that Jessica was greeted by a fellow UMass alum – Leon Kayego,  MPH ’95, BSN/RN ’10.

Leon served as the Country Director for Peace Corps The Gambia and is currently transitioning into the same position for Peace Corps The Zambia. The mission of the Peace Corps is to promote peace and friendship by assisting with skills transfer to communities around the world, promoting a better understanding of Americans on the part of people served, and promoting a better understanding of the people served on the part of Americans. In The Gambia, volunteers work in one of the following sectors: Agriculture/Food Security, Education, and Community Health. As Country Director, Leon oversees project designs and implementation, representation at the host government level, and above all supports volunteers in the field as they live and work side-by-side with the communities they have been assigned to serve. Such support involves training, volunteer health and safety, project site visits, and overall administrative assistance.

Jessica He provides malaria education to a class in The Gambia

Located in The Upper River Region, also known as the farthest region into the African bush in The Gambia, Jessica is assigned to a 6,000 person village called Kulari. As a member on the Malaria Task Force, Jessica focuses on malaria sensitization in Kulari and the surrounding region. Among The Gambia's six regions, The Upper River Region is the least developed and the most impacted by malaria. Malaria kills indiscriminately, but the mortality rate for children under five years old dwarfs all other demographics. Jessica spends her time creating malaria teaching aids, coaching community members to become malaria resources, supporting community members in village-wide malaria sensitization programs, and planning malaria awareness events.

“My favorite thing to do, and also the most fulfilling, is helping people help themselves. I'm trying my hardest to integrate, but I won't be in The Gambia forever. If I can reach out to even one person and have him or her remember something I said about malaria in one, five, ten years after I'm gone, I've succeeded.”

Jessica collaborates with community members, community health nurses, district counselors, village leaders, Women's Groups, teachers, and students to spread malaria knowledge throughout The Gambia. Jessica was originally selected to travel to Senegal for a two-week intensive malaria boot camp called Stomp Out Malaria in September, but the recent Ebola Virus Disease outbreak in West Africa delayed the training until January. In the meantime, Jessica is organizing and leading a malaria trek throughout her region called the “Kick Out Malaria Trek” where she and fellow Peace Corps Volunteers will host a one-day malaria fair at various schools. The Kick Out Malaria Trek will incorporate classroom teaching as well as teaching through the sport of soccer to educate students about malaria.

To read more about Jessica's malaria education experience, check out Stomp Out Malaria's Weekly Awesome spotlight on her projects.

Aside from malaria, Jessica is also starting to sensitize communities about the Ebola Virus Disease with her Community Health Nurse. With the start of the school year, Jessica is also helping two schools with their Red Cross Club and Peer Health Clubs. She plans on collaborating with teachers to run a 22-week health club curriculum for 40 students. Jessica's future projects include nutritional trainings, general health and well-being trainings for adults, and painting health murals for communities.

If interested in the Peace Corps, The Gambia, or ways to help Jessica raise malaria awareness, please email her at jess113he@gmail.

Left: Jessica preparing to kick out malaria. Right: Jessica enjoying a lighter moment during her stay in the Peace Corps.