How We Started
The summer of 2013 was pretty uneventful till the end. For the most part, I had just graduated from the eighth grade, and after what I considered to be a strenuous year by middle-school standards, I decided to spend the summer relaxing in my suburban neighborhood of Superior, Colorado. However, I quickly noticed all the exciting places that my friends were going and implored my parents about any possible trips we could take. My dad had a cousin in Quito, Ecuador called Mahnaz. She we apparently a renowned pediatrician in the country and had hosted various service trips over the years during the summers. My dad suggested that with me entering high school, a service trip by myself to the country would not be a bad launch-point topic of discussion for my first day at school.
So I went to Ecuador by myself. For ten days, I would be with my "aunt" (from a close-knit culture like mine, all close and distant family members were referred to as my aunts and uncles), her husband Carlos, and their son Yusef. We would travel across the center of the country (also known as the Sierra region of Ecuador), going to various villages and giving medical attention to all those who needed it. Before heading off to the country, Mahnaz asked that I bring down all sorts of vitamins and medicines that we would use during the trip.
During this time, I was able to see the poorest parts of the countryside all the way up to the upperclass living in Quito. Everyday, I journaled about what I saw and did while there (you can read them on this site). But for the most part, I spent time with Mahnaz and Yusef giving medical attention to those in the countryside. All in all, we saw upwards of 90 people per day, both men, women, children, and elderly. And the things I saw left a very personal impact on me.
Before I began the trip, I did some reading on the situation of healthcare in the country. Ecuador was one of the poorest countries in South America, and like all countries that have poor wealth, poor health follows. Malnutrition, diseases such as malaria and chikungunya, and more were quite present in the country. And I witnessed all that during my short stay there. Perhaps the worst cases I saw was when I was staying in a village called Rosa. There, the vast majority of children who arrived came with mothers in their late teens and early 20's, most of whom had no knowledge of sexual health or proper care for their children.
I asked Mahnaz if other groups were down here helping such people out, with almost all of them lacking access to a doctor and medical supplies. And while she did respond by saying such groups were here, it was not nearly enough to see all these people. I returned to Colorado determined to help her out and help solve the health issues in Ecuador in whatever way I could. For two years, I did just that. With the help of friends and relatives, our group collected medicine and vitamins on a monthly basis and sent them down to the country. The idea seemed great in concept. But in reality, it was ineffective.
For one, the type of medicine we could send down was limited. Beyond what we could find at the store, we could send no prescription medicines or heavy medical equipment. Often times, our packages were lost or emptied and would not reach Mahnaz. And of the packages that did arrive, we began to notice a recurring trend from Mahnaz: the same people were getting sick, and their problems were not getting any better.
Clearly, slapping a sick person directions for medicine would not cure their problems. After all, a person with a cold may take medicine and initially get better. But unless they keep an eye out for their health, they will only get sick again and again. Quintessentially, that is exactly what I noticed during my time in Ecuador and during my time shipping medicine down: unless people knew why they are getting sick, the problems would just continue.
Educating health had to be the focus, and that was precisely what our group began to hone in on. The youth of Ecuador are especially susceptible to health problems. According to UNICEF, stunting from chronic malnutrition affects 26% of children under 5 in the country. In addition, the World Bank states that Ecuador has one of the highest infant mortality rates in South America, with 26 deaths per 1,000 live births.
Of course, most kids are not prone to read simple pamphlets and brochures on health issues. An effective education almost anywhere in the world is fun and exciting. Thus, we decided over the summer of 2015 to create graphic novels on varying health issues. With a reoccurring character and engaging storyline, the book could be read by students, parents, and even doctors. Printing was cheaper, and sending comic books down to Ecuador did not face the same obstacles as shipping medicine. The project itself is not as canned as other nonprofit group work.
Our team has grown to include cartoonists, translators, researchers, distributors in Ecuador, and more. Currently, we have produced issues on the four most major health issues affecting the country and have sent out some 5,000 comics. We look forward to where we are headed!
-Kasha Akrami, Founder and President