NEWTOWN, Conn.— Grace Herrick of Newtown has more on her mind than the typical high school senior's worries about homework and college applications.
Herrick, a senior at The Gunnery in Washington, Conn., has more global concerns: She’s thinking about schoolchildren in Uganda.
It’s not just news headlines for Herrick. She’s been to Uganda and seen the situation firsthand. And her response to what she observed became the basis for her Girl Scout Gold Award project — and much more.
“Last summer I went to Uganda with the Danbury Hospital Global Health Program,” Herrick said. “We did a lot of community outreach with orphans. I realized there’s a great need for systems of healthcare and education.”
Herrick's father is a psychiatrist at Danbury Hospital, and through this association, Herrick met Dr. Majid Sadigh, director of the Global Health Program.
Herrick was looking for inspiration for her next science fair project — she has consistently won awards for science projects focused on renewable energy — but she saw a different need after spending time at the African Community Center for Social Sustainability (ACCESS) in the Nakaseke District of central Uganda.
“Education is technically free in Uganda, but not really,” Herrick said. In addition to school fees, students must have a school uniform, including shoes, or they will be sent home. Also, there is no transportation. But one of the most surprising things she learned was the role food plays in whether a child can attend school.
“If they come to school without food, they are sent home,” Herrick said. “Food is a barrier to education.”
She contrasted the Ugandan model with the United States, where there are free lunch programs for children in need.
“It’s a total 180,” Herrick said. She did more research after she returned home, and the statistics dismayed her. “The primary school dropout rate is 71 percent and the unemployment rate is 85 percent. You see it — people sitting on the sidewalks are idle, with nothing to do.”
In wondering why the dropout rate was so high, she learned that Ugandan children enter kindergarten ill-prepared to succeed.
“They are 5 or 6 years old and have never even seen a book before,” Herrick said. “Rural villages don’t have preschools. Most drop out.”
Touched by this, Herrick was motivated to do something about it. She spoke with Dr. Robert Kalyesubula, founder of the African Community Center for Social Sustainability, and started a program to help prepare children for kindergarten.
Now, 35 children are enrolled in her program, which meets on the ACCESS campus. They are learning their colors, letters and numbers, and getting reinforcement of their lessons with the help of DVDs. And at Herrick's program, the kids not only follow a curriculum to prepare them for kindergarten, they also get a meal.
The response to the program was greater than she expected.
“There are 14 different villages that the children are coming from,” Herrick said. “And there’s a waiting list.”
The parents are getting involved in the program, too. They participate in folklore storytelling sessions, Herrick said, so they are adding their own ideas and culture to what the children learn.
"The kids are more excited," she said. "Some of the parents are illiterate, but the program broadens their horizons, too."
Herrick earned her Girl Scout Gold Award and was selected to present her project at an event in Washington, D.C., celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Gold Award program.
But she's not stopping there. Herrick is now creating a nonprofit organization to not only continue the program she started, but also to expand it. Shen wants to establish centers of excellence for early childhood education in rural communities within Uganda and other countries with similar needs.
She's excited to share her experience with her sister, Catherine, who did not go to Uganda last year. But Grace is counting on her sister to join the next trip there.
Herrick's future plans include medical school, but she has realized the limitations of that career. "You can't fix a patient and send them back to an environment in which they'll only become sick again," she said. "You have to fix the environment."