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Mission to Africa

Shawn McCarthy '15 spent part of his summer helping to provide medical care to impoverished villagers in the tiny African nation of Swaziland.

By Hilary Bentman

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Shawn McCarthy '15 treats a child for ring worm. The business management major spent part of his summer volunteering in temporary medical clinics in Swaziland.

Shawn McCarthy '15 was working in a pop-up health clinic in Swaziland when he had what he calls a "life-changing experience."

There, in an impoverished area of the tiny southeastern African nation, the Albright College business management major met a girl who was living in a hut and caring for her two-year-old twin siblings. Their mother was sick in the hospital with HIV.

This girl, the family's primary caretaker, was just 10-years-old.

"I thought, 'Wow, I can’t believe there’s no one there to help these children,'" said McCarthy.

Her story was one of many that touched McCarthy during a transformative, two-week mission trip to Swaziland this summer.

McCarthy was one of 30 volunteers traveling with Swaziland Relief, a nonprofit organization that "partner(s) with indigenous leaders to provide short-term aid and long-term relief to the orphans and AIDS victims of Swaziland" through community support, operating schools and health clinics, developing clean water sources, and other means.

Swaziland Relief grew out of a partnership with Bridge Community Church and Vision of Missions of Philadelphia, and Christian Ministries Church in Swaziland.

McCarthy, of Jenkintown, Montgomery County, heard about the trip while home on a break from Albright. Pastor Angelo Juliani of Bridge Community is the father of one of McCarthy's high school friends.

McCarthy had previously been on missions to Honduras and Mexico. But the Swaziland trip was different.

"I was a little nervous going there," he acknowledged. "We went to six or seven different villages and we saw kids walking around without shoes and torn-up clothes. It's a culture shock."

Each day, McCarthy and his traveling companions would pack up supplies and head to villages to operate temporary medical clinics and clothing distribution centers.

McCarthy's job was to help dispense medication to the locals, some of whom had not seen a doctor in years.

Some of the patients were suffering from HIV/AIDS, a major health problem in Swaziland. According to UNICEF, an estimated 26 percent of the 1.4 million people living in Swaziland are infected, giving the country the highest HIV prevalence rate in the world.

"The country has been destroyed by HIV and AIDS," said McCarthy. "There are a lot of grandmothers taking care of younger children because the middle generation has been wiped out."

Added McCarthy: "Conditions are really bad. There is no government aid for the people. They are really left to themselves."

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McCarthy called his two-week mission trip to Swaziland "life changing." After graduation, he hopes to start his own nonprofit organization to do mission work in foreign countries.

McCarthy said the locals were grateful for the help and support from Swaziland Relief. Even seemingly small acts could have a profound impact on their lives.

One woman, suffering from severe arthritis, couldn't walk into the clinic herself. So McCarthy and the others helped carry her inside.

"We helped her and she was so joyful," said McCarthy.

That same joy was seen on the faces of mothers handed clothes and blankets for their babies, and on the youngsters who traded ripped-up shoes for Nike sneakers.

Smiles also abounded when McCarthy handed out peanut butter and jelly sandwiches – considered a real delicacy – and when he and others staged puppet shows for the children.

And then there was the six-year-old boy who was too poor to attend school. So Swaziland Relief pulled together the $32 needed to cover his tuition and school uniform for a year.

But McCarthy also quickly discovered that there was a limit to what he and the other volunteers could accomplish.

"That was one of the hardest parts for me," he said. "It was disheartening. You can only do so much."

For instance, he met a six-year-old boy who couldn't walk and could barely talk. A nurse said the child probably had autism but had never received help.

And volunteers could offer no medical relief for a 16-year-old boy with a tumor. But they did work on getting the teenager a passport so he could travel to a South African hospital for treatment.

The weight of these issues was, at times, too much for McCarthy to bear.

"I broke down a couple times or had to go outside to catch my breath," he said, remembering one instance in particular when he saw a disabled woman crawling around with shoes on her knees because she couldn’t afford a wheelchair.

The Swaziland mission has made McCarthy "want to live my life a different way, to put God in the center of my life."

"Spiritually, it put things in perspective for me – what's really necessary and important in life and what we value here in America," he added. "It's kept me really grounded – giving back to the people and building relationships with them."

McCarthy said that Albright's focus on the liberal arts has broadened his interests, helping to prepare him for this trip and beyond. After graduation, he hopes to start his own nonprofit organization to do mission work in foreign countries.

This semester, McCarthy is taking a course on Global Health to learn more about the health problems around the world, "which will help me decide which type of nonprofit I would like to get involved with," he said.

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