Meredith Cooley Rob Holmes

A grant from the Jefferson Trust yielded unexpected dividends for a project that’s addressing community health issues in Africa.

The trust, which is administered by the UVA Alumni Association, designated $50,000 (part of $325,000 last year in various grants) for a single effort, called the Mbeya Program. A team of nine graduate nursing students, four medical students and a faculty member was scheduled to spend four weeks last summer in Lesotho, where nearly one in three residents is infected with HIV/AIDS.

Political unrest in that country, however, necessitated a change in plans. Most of the group went to Bushbuckridge, a district in the Mpumulanga province of South Africa. A few decided to push on to Lesotho as the tension eased.

The result: partnerships in two communities.

“The trust was very responsive to the fact that not only could we make one location a sustainable location, but that it looked like we could in fact have two locations,” says Doris Greiner, a professor in the School of Nursing.

Sustainability comes from helping others to help themselves. The students’ first step was assessing needs, and in Bushbuckridge a big need was improving sanitation. The Lesotho effort, which included teaching local health-care providers to train others, took an unusual twist with construction of a rabbitry.

“It was a remarkable experience because it was so tangible and sustainable,” says Meredith Cooley, a second-year graduate student in nursing. The rabbitry program creates a source of protein as well as income to buy other healthy foods.

Cooley had been to Lesotho earlier as a Peace Corps worker, so she was familiar with the harsh conditions and devastation wrought by HIV/AIDS. During July, which is a winter month in the southern hemisphere, she shared the bitter cold with a woman who had lost her husband and children in the epidemic. The woman was caring for seven grandchildren—and she was HIV positive herself.

“We really got to experience what life was like for this woman,” says Cooley, who returned to Lesotho for two weeks in January. Additional students and faculty in the project—a combined effort of the School of Nursing and the School of Medicine—expect to continue the two-pronged effort this summer. Greiner, Cooley and others don’t take the Jefferson Trust’s help for granted.

“It was a dream come true,” Cooley says. “We wouldn’t have been able to do the work we did without that grant.”