Senior Gives Helping Hand to S. Africa’s Impoverished
Elizabeth “Lizz” Egan ’17 spent a month this summer teaching disabled children how to walk and working in a garden growing food for the most impoverished of people in South Africa.
“I think the perseverance and positivity these kids gave off was life changing for me,” Egan said once she returned to Merrimack’s campus for the start of her senior year.
Egan wanted to study abroad but the demands of her schoolwork as an exercise science major meant she couldn’t go abroad for an entire school year or even a semester so she worked with the group Projects Abroad for a short-term service program.
“It’s really nice because there’s a lot of flexibility,” she said.
Egan is deeply involved in the Merrimack community as a student-athlete, resident advisor, and orientation leader so that gives her a platform from which to be a role model other students, said the Rev. Ray Dlugos, O.S.A. Spending an extended time immersed in a culture while far removed geographically, socio-economically, racially and politically from New England offered an incredibly eye-opening and transformative experience, he said.
“From that position, she is able to not only share her knowledge and experience with her fellow students but she can also influence, guide, and encourage them to take similar risks to change themselves, our community here, and eventually, the world,” Fr. Ray said.
Egan was drawn to the African continent but her mother Janet had strong reservations after terrorist attacks in Europe as planning began. They sat down together and settled on South Africa, which is politically and religiously stable compared to other regions of the continent.
Projects Abroad works in 27 countries, including South Africa. The group found a host family for Egan and service projects on which she could work. Then it made the travel arrangements and even worked it out so Egan’s experience counted as an internship for which she got school credit.
Egan spent a year fundraising for her trip. Her hometown church, Dennis Union Church donated $3,000 and she started a GoFundMe page. She stood in front of Stop and Shop in her hometown of Dennis, Mass. three or four times during the summer of 2015 asking for donations.
“People were more than willing to throw me their spare change when I explained what I was doing,” Egan said.
After raising about $7,000 to pay for the trip, she flew out of Logan International Airport in Boston bound for Amsterdam July 4. From there she flew to Cape Town, South Africa.
Egan was anxious to get started on the adventure when she left Boston but during 20 hours of flight time she had time to consider the uncertainties ahead and she was simply filled with anxiety when she landed.
When she landed Egan couldn’t find her ride and wandered out of the airport, then back inside, before finding her driver about 20 minutes later. It didn’t help her anxiety but it turned out she’d only walked past her driver.
There are 11 national languages in South Africa and her host family in suburban Grassy Park, south of Cape Town, spoke three of them, including English. There were two other exchange students in the home, including a 15-year-old boy from France who was part of a high school trip and a college student from Panama.
Egan went to work at a settlement on public land. The neighborhood is run by gangs where residents live in homemade shacks made of discarded wood and metal. Egan joined a team building two community buildings and a security wall of brick meant to keep out marauding parties from the adjacent township. Workers had to leave the township by noon on Fridays when violence typically started for the weekend and weren’t allowed back until sometime mid-morning on the following Mondays to give time for the area to be cleaned, including removal of bodies of people who died during the weekend.
“We were already experiencing so much and so far from home that, that can be a very traumatic experience,” Egan said.
The leader of the work crew showed Egan how to mix mortar and lay bricks, then smooth it over to make a sturdy wall. It was winter in South Africa but the afternoons were warm so construction stopped and volunteers helped gardening at a daycare while babysitting and teaching about 50 children. The children were so neglected at home that they would come to blows while fighting each other for Egan’s attention.
After two weeks, Egan was reassigned to experience another side of volunteerism, this time at a hospital for children with psychiatric, developmental, and physical disabilities.
There were cases of cerebral palsy, epilepsy and developmental delays. Among the patients were teenagers who were only as mentally developed as five-years-olds.
She worked with children who were non-verbal and non-mobile. “This is where the physical therapy comes in,” Egan said, referring to her college major.
The staff at the hospital was so overworked they had little time for each child so there were children whose muscles were atrophying and couldn’t support their own weight. If they don’t stretch their leg muscles, the children will eventually be disabled for life. Egan used her training from school to help loosen the children’s legs and start them on a walking program. Despite the pain that went with loosening their muscles, the children were enthusiastic participants.
“I think the perseverance and positivity these kids gave off was life changing for me,” she said.
Egan worked closely with a three-year-old named Ethan with global developmental delays who communicated in baby talk and still used a bottle.
“When I first met him, he could barely stand on his feet,” Egan said. “He was kind of drawn to me and had an energy, it was hard not to want to work with him.”
Ethan wore leg braces to correct his posture and was afraid to fall so he resisted working with the full-time staff but as soon as Egan arrived his attitude changed. She worked with Ethan on his balance and his motor skills until the little boy was ready to work on his walking skills.
“By the end he was walking all over the hospital by himself,” Egan said. “It was incredible.”
The anxiety she suffered on the first day of arriving in South Africa was just a memory when the time came to leave. Saying goodbye was hard.
“I really enjoyed it,” she said. “Based on my relationship with a couple of students, it was really uplifting.”