When she arrived in the children’s hospital in Sierra Leone this May, junior Hanna Wilson immediately felt that she needed to go to the back of the room. She walked past children that were literally skin and bones, wept over by fathers or watched over by mothers who didn’t know they were dying. “When I thought it couldn’t get any harder, I turned around and saw her, lying on the bed, alone,” says Wilson.
Baby Zainab had been born premature, was five months old and had tuberculosis. She was the tiniest infant Wilson had ever seen. When she picked up the baby, Zainab didn’t seem to be breathing, but the nurse found a faint pulse. Wilson looked up at her professor, Jen Diers, for strength. The two held Zainab and prayed until it was time to go. “This was quite possibly the single hardest thing I have done,” says Wilson, “leaving her there knowing she was inches from death.”
The first moment the students arrived in Sierra Leone, they felt the shock of extreme wealth disparity. Winters says it felt like a movie scene, with people living in tiny sheds of branches and tin. Diers recalls the children she saw picking through trash for food. Wilson had a similar experience: “I feel like my main statement in regard to Sierra Leone is: ‘You have got to be kidding me!’ This is what I thought when I first saw the poverty.”This was Wilson’s second time in Sierra Leone with Diers, who organized the trip for students and recent alumni. She is involved with the nonprofit The Raining Season, which runs an orphanage in the West African country. The trip was filled with momentous, sometimes heartbreaking, and sometimes hopeful moments. Joel Winters ’10 remembers meeting the husband of an orphanage employee who had recently died. Unable to access a vehicle when his wife started having severe stomach pains, he carried her on his own back all the way to the hospital before she passed. But Winters also remembers meeting the 18-year-old Joseph, a Muslim, and talking with him on the beach about God, Jesus and Christianity.
The task of the small group of students and alumni, most of them education majors, was to play with the orphans and develop educational activities for them. Diers says this provided practice creating lessons and problem-solving on the spot. As a specialist in education and child development, Diers trained the orphanage’s teachers on proper educational techniques in a country whose literacy rate is only 36 percent. The Raining Season’s next project is an orphan village with a school, medical facility, church, community center and sustainable agriculture.
Despite all the powerful moments Diers has experienced during her four trips with The Raining Season, her mind keeps going back to that scene in the children’s hospital. “To think, in that moment, that a Central student was there to hold that baby,” Diers says with both pride and sadness. “Hanna was there in the last moments of that baby’s life to give her warmth and love. It was a special moment for us as professor and student to be part of together.”