Hingham Doctor Leads Service Trip to Malawi, One of World’s Poorest Countries; Another Trip Planned for Next Year


August 1, 2019 by Carol Britton Meyer

This summer Dr. Lori Lerner traveled for the third time to Pothawira Village in Malawi -- one of the world’s poorest countries -- accompanied by her daughter, Emma Fanuele, and more than 30 other volunteers — including several fellow Hingham residents.

These included Julie and Ciara Dale, Jennifer and Jordan Epstein, Jerilyn and Jenna Tyrrell, and Lerner's husband, Damian O'Brien -- all of whom were enthusiastic participants.

Jennifer Epstein with the youngest orphan.

This was a two-week service trip to provide medical care, interact with the schoolchildren, and convert a 40-foot shipping container into storage for the village clinic, school, and the orphanage that cares for 125 children there. Lerner earlier made a lasting connection with Dr. Anne Alaniz, who with her father -- a medical officer -- started Pothawira Village. They run and fund raise for the clinic, supplemented by donations.

"The clinic sees between 200 and 300 patients daily, many of whom travel great distances to be seen by medical professionals," Lerner said, but the clinic is long on love and short on basic medical supplies that we in this country take for granted.

Hingham Dr. Lori Lerner and Dr. Anne Alaniz of Pothawira Village in Malawi

This summer Lerner and other volunteers with a medical background worked in the clinic; parent and teacher volunteers interacted with the schoolchildren; and the students worked on the shipping container, decorated the orphanage dorms, and played with the children and did tie-dye and other projects with them.

Lerner traveled to Malawi last January to prepare for the group trip following her and Emma’s first service trip together to Malawi last summer.

The kids received donated stuffed animals and many carried them on their backs

At that time Lerner, who is Chief of Urology with the VA Boston Healthcare System, provided medical and surgical care. Emma, then a Hingham High sophomore, performed testing for malaria and helped children in the orphanage.

“It didn’t take long for our passion to spread throughout Hingham. When classes started at Hingham High in the fall following our trip last summer, Emma founded the Construction Club for Africa,” Lerner said. “She rallied her fellow students to design a solar-powered unit for storing medical supplies in a shipping container because power outages are frequent in Pothawira Village, and an organized storage space doesn't exist. The new storage unit will help Pothawira personnel organize supplies and help keep some of the equipment powered for clinic use.”

Emma is excited about the time she spent  in Africa and can’t wait to return. “This whole experience has truly changed me. This year was my second time going to Pothawira, and it definitely will not be my last. I cannot speak on behalf of the amazing people that I’ve met in Malawi and how I’ve impacted them, but I know that they impacted me in so many ways.”

Volunteers performing a lifesaving surgery on a child.

Emma found it “eye-opening to see how happy everyone seems to be, no matter how many tragedies they’ve endured, compared to the society we live in in the United States. I have become more aware of the privileges that I take for granted each day. There is no way for me to describe how happy I am when I’m there; all of my worries and stresses from home disappear and I just live in the moment.”

Emma is planning to add to the current Pothawira website so that people can give monthly donations to help the clinic at Pothawira. “They built a birthing center but haven’t been able to run it since they don’t have enough money to consistently staff it, along with the clinic, orphanage, and school,” she said. “My plan is to have different tiers of donations, with small thank-you gifts for the people who donate more. The maternity ward in the hospital is far from ideal, with women giving birth on trash bags on the floor. This opportunity [to help the people of Malawi] has truly enriched my life.”

Children hoping to hear from their pen pals

The Summer 2019 trip was funded in part by $43,000 in donations and fundraising efforts, including last February’s “A Night of Africa” event held at Hingham Community Center that raised $17,000. The student and parent volunteers also raised money for the trip on their own, further engaging members of their own families and communities in this effort.

Planning this team trip was an amazing undertaking, including arranging accommodations at a lodge in Salima and finding the least-expensive way to transport thousands of pounds of medical and surgical supplies and equipment, stuffed animals, flip flops, clothing, toys, tools for converting the shipping container, books, school supplies, and toothbrushes for the children living in the orphanage. One happy recipient offered a handful of peanuts as a thank-you, which meant a lot to the volunteers.

What would seem like a simple thing to us — a pencil sharpener — was received with joy by the headmaster of the village school, who was used to sharpening pencils with a razor blade.

Of the 1,200 pairs of donated glasses collected by the team before leaving for Malawi, 400 found homes, thanks to assistance from a volunteer optometrist.
Julie Dale also shared her and her daughter Ciara's thoughts about the trip. "It was incredibly meaningful for us both," Julie said. "We are both so grateful that we got out of our comfort zones and joined in this mission."

As a middle school English teacher, Julie was welcomed in the school at Pothawira to observe, assist with lessons, and provide feedback to the teachers. "The kids were so receptive to having me there and loved having me check their work," she said. "It was also helpful to see firsthand just how much and what they need to try to improve the educational experience for these kids, who are lacking in basic school supplies we take for granted."

Julie and another volunteer spent a good amount of time helping the teachers learn to use two iPads that were donated by Hingham  Middle School Teacher Caroline Farris.  "This technology is foreign to them, but they were so enthusiastic and interested in learning all about it," Julie said.

Teaching locals how to use ipads

Ciara’s experience with the kids at the school and orphanage is one she will never forget.  Although she loved playing with the little kids (Daniel was a favorite), the bonds and friendships she formed with the older girls were the best part of the trip for her.  "As her mom, I was so proud of her willingness to immerse herself in the experience and to open her heart to these beautiful children whose lives are so different from hers," Julie said.  "Saying good-bye was very difficult, and there were many tears.  Mary, Grace, Hannah, Charity, and Chimwemwe will be in her heart forever."

Thanks to the team effort involved, “We did everything we hoped for and more," Julie said.  "The doctors and nurses did incredible work,  the guys building the storage facility were amazing, Fabrice the optometrist worked tirelessly, and the rest of us were privileged to be able to support their efforts and spend time with the children, their 'Mamas,'  and the  teachers," Julie said.

Many of the volunteers from this summer's trip are looking forward to returning to Malawi next year and also to the Second Annual “A Night of Africa” fundraiser. Details to be announced!

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