Sara Tershel, Operations Associate in Research & Advisory, volunteers with a local support group for mothers living with HIV/AIDS in Uganda.
Sara Tershel, an Operations Associate in Research & Advisory, recently spent a week volunteering in Uganda with an HIV and AIDS support group for mothers diagnosed with the disease. More than 7% of the population in Uganda is living with HIV/AIDS. Sara worked with a community nurse at a local clinic that provides free testing for and counseling for the community. She shares her reflections on the experience:
There is an abundant supply of sunshine in Africa; however, some things are kept in the dark. Although HIV is unfortunately not uncommon in Uganda, there is still a lack of knowledge and a lot of discrimination toward those who are HIV positive.
I spent a week volunteering with an HIV and AIDS support project in Uganda, Africa — a region where 7.2% of the population is living with HIV/AIDS. My week began with meeting our program director, Mabel. Her spirit was overwhelmingly warm and on our first day, we learned how she began this program. When Mabel was a little girl, her mother was diagnosed with HIV; soon after learning of this, her father sent her mother and siblings away from their home so he could remarry—something that is sadly common in Uganda. Mabel’s mom raised her children on her own, determined to give them a better future. She wrote a book that, with the help of a national HIV association, got the attention of U2 singer Bono and actor Chris Tucker. They paid Mabel and her siblings’ school fees and her mother’s medical needs. This experience inspired Mabel to create a local support group to help mothers like her own.
It was clear to me upon meeting the women in this group that they were more family than neighbors, supporting each other where their husbands’ or family’s support was lacking. They built a garden on one member’s land to get better nutrition, congregated in a tent on another member’s property, created businesses to support themselves (raising chickens, creating soap, making baskets and other handmade goods to sell), and, possibly most importantly, provided an impartial space.
Along with supporting these women however we could, Mabel had us work with a local clinic and a community nurse. The clinic and nurse provided free HIV testing, and I was overwhelmed with the amount of people waiting in line for these services. In their culture, HIV testing is just another regular screening, like getting a physical. I wish I could say that the tests all came back negative. Counseling was provided after the tests to recommend continued prevention or how to deal with their diagnosis. The counseling was done in Luganda (the native language), and although I couldn’t understand the words, I could see the relief or the pain in their eyes when hearing their results.
I think what’s often forgotten or not talked about for immersive volunteer trips is how emotionally taxing it can be. I was ready to work hard and give it my all, but I discounted how I would feel by putting myself in these people’s shoes. It was heartbreaking to see some of the conditions this community lived in, yet their strong, positive attitude was infectious. I appreciated the level of health care we have available in the United States, but I was also discouraged that I wouldn’t be able to give this community the same care. It was easy to see the ways the health care services offered could be improved and expanded, but it’s difficult to find an attainable solution.
I took a leap of faith and found myself outside my comfort zone throughout my week. But like when we’re pushed in our careers, it is often worth it for the reward. One of the things I value about Gartner, is that we are continually encouraged to grow: to take risks, build skills, and find new passions, all while encompassing the spirit of generosity. My time in Uganda restored my motivation to continually better myself and to better the lives of those around me, near and far.
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