University News

Alum helps improve education access in South Africa

Victoria Leonard ’15 teaches classes on hygiene, health, incorporating info about structural racism

Staff Writer
Monday, April 25, 2016

Approximately 29 percent of the class of 2015’s graduates have entered the nonprofit sector, and though it has been less than a year since their graduation, some alums are already making a far-reaching impact.

This winter, Victoria Leonard ’15, who studied political science and religious studies, worked in South Africa alongside a group of eight people as part of a medical mission for the nonprofit organization Universal Promise, she said. The group included Victoria’s mother, physician Kathryne Leonard P’15, and Victoria’s eighth-grade math teacher and UP founder Martha Cummings, she said.

The team worked in the impoverished region of Addo, where locals do not have immediate or dependable access to clean water, social services, emergency services or trash collection, Cummings said. Roads are broken and “nearly impassable, especially when it rains,” and schools are underserved, she added.

Though UP’s main focus is improving access to education, the organization also works to provide food, clean water, health services and other resources that are inextricably linked to education, Cummings said. UP believes that inadequate access to basic life necessities impedes the ability of students to learn, so the organization aims to improve education access on all fronts, she said.

“The initiative was three-pronged,” Victoria said. “We tried to address the systemic causes of poor health, and therefore poor education.”

Over the course of two weeks, Victoria led community seminars teaching locals about hygiene, nutrition, exercise and other health-related issues, she said. The seminars were popular, forcing the classes to relocate to accommodate such a large audience. At one point, approximately 250 people attended her class, Victoria said.

Victoria “has focused on the long-standing impact of structural racism, not only in a theoretical way in the classroom, but in a practical way as well,” Cummings said. “She was seamless in her transition into the community we serve.”

Meanwhile, Kathryne went door-to-door offering physical examinations to locals in Addo, checking vital signs and offering testing for HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and pregnancy, Kathryne said.

Another point of focus for the group is renovating the clinic in Addo, Victoria said. UP has already reached its goal of raising $20,000 in an online campaign aimed to double the size of the pharmacy and waiting room, she said.

Each time UP visits Addo, team members are enthusiastically welcomed by the community, Cummings said. Children greet the volunteers through ceremonies, songs, dances and hugs. They have even nicknamed Victoria “Sisipho,” which means “gift” in Xhosa, and Cummings “Nobuntu,” which means “humanity,” she said.

Though UP’s work requires intense dedication, Victoria and Kathryne have found their experiences immensely rewarding. Victoria said it was “incredibly moving and empowering” to watch her mother practice medicine, which she had never seen before.

“I’d traveled to the continent several times before, and my mom has always been worried about me,” Victoria said. “Sharing this experience with her and having her see what I do put her a little bit more at ease, and she gained some understanding into why I want to do what I want to do.”

“Victoria really wants to work in South Africa — she just loves it there,” Kathryne said. “I wanted to go to South Africa to see what she was in love with.”

But more than anything, the team emphasizes that the focus should be on the Addo community instead of UP’s work. “It’s so much more about the stories of the people of Addo, how they’re taking care of each other, how they’re fighting through an enormously racist institution and how they’re empowering themselves,” Victoria said. “They’re the real heroes here.”

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