Fanta, a 6-year-old girl in Bwiam Village, Gambia, keeps her family’s few valued possessions under the simple wood frame of her bed. There, alongside pots and pans, lies a tattered shoebox full of every letter Megan Meyer has sent her family.
“I usually don’t hear when I write because of the cost of postage,” Meyer, a University of Minnesota dental therapy student, said. “When she showed me that box, it let me know my friendship means something, that what we’re doing has value.”
Meyer said connections like this keep her motivated to help Gambin people through A Hand in Health, the nonprofit organization she founded.
Her current project is a drive to send one million books to Gambi, a small African nation where there is only one book per 1,000 citizens.
A lifetime commitment
Meyer said when some of her Jewish and agnostic friends were excluded from participating in a Christian service trip her senior year in high school, she decided to organize her own trip to help communities in Mexico.
“Helping others shouldn’t be a religiously oriented thing,” she said. “It should be a human thing.”
She said the trip, where she bathed out of a bucket and lived without electricity, was her first close experience with poverty.
The trip had enough impact on Meyer’s life to cause her to return to the Mexican orphanage two more times, and planted the seed for a future in international service work, Meyer said.
At Carleton College, where she completed her undergraduate degree, she received the Service Initiative Fellowship, a grant that funded a summer-long service trip abroad.
A friend suggested Meyer go to Africa. At that time, she was beginning to develop an interest in health care. When Meyer was placed in Sulayman Junkung General Hospital in Bwian Village, it felt like the culmination of everything she was seeking at the time.
For three months, she slept on a cot in an empty wing of the hospital with limited access to electricity and no running water.
During that trip, she said she experienced a series of “powerful moments” that compelled her to take action to provide resources to the country.
“A lot of my job while I was there was to hold hands and soothe patients,” she said. “Sometimes they would wake up in the middle of surgery because we didn’t have enough anesthetic.”
At the hospital, she saw death and live birth for the first time, and watched surgeries performed by candlelight when the electricity failed.
“The hardest part was knowing people’s lives would have been saved had they been born in the States where I’m from,” she said. “After seeing stuff like that, it’s really hard to ignore it — you can’t just go back.”
A Hand in Health is born
Meyer said she had long conversations with the CEO of the hospital under mango trees as they sipped attaya, a traditional West African tea.
During one conversation, she asked what he would do with the hospital if he had unlimited resources. His answers propelled her vision for A Hand in Health, the nonprofit organization she founded in 2006 upon returning to the U.S. after her first trip to Gambi.
Since then, A Hand in Health — which now consists of Meyer and more than 20 volunteers — has partnered in a series of successful initiatives, such as installing solar panels at the hospital where she volunteered and project Muunoo Smile, which provided dental outreach, supplies and treatment to hundreds of Gambians.
“We have a lot of physical resources to give [the village],” Ryan Olson, A Hand in Health board member, said. “But they have given us so much more —an incredible perspective for the world and appreciation of life.”
Making a difference
In April, Meyer, 26, will be an exhibition speaker at the very competitive Clinton Global Initiative University, where college students from around the world will develop ideas to tackle international issues.
She said she will present on the nonprofit’s most recent project: Installing the first public medical library in Gambia in the Sulayman Junkung General Hospital.
As workers at the hospital used their time off to help unload the 7,500 books A Hand in Health and another local nonprofit, Books for Africa, had sent, they expressed their desire to provide books for their children.
A Hand in Health took that desire as a cue to begin the drive for 1 Million Books for Gambia.
Meyer is partnering with Books for Africa for the project.
“She is a student herself, and nonetheless devotes a great deal of time and energy into harnessing resources for other students,” Carole Patrikakos, the development associate for Books For Africa, said.
Dreams for the future
Meyer is the class president of the University’s first class of students in the dental therapy program, which will graduate this spring.
The program provides dental training to professionals who will focus their practice on low-income, underserved populations, Dr. Karl Self, director of the Division and Program in Dental Therapy, said.
“I think Megan is going to be an outstanding asset to the new program,” Self said. “She has an obvious passion for helping underserved people … and I think she’s just an all-around great person.”
Meyer hopes to practice dental therapy part-time in the Minneapolis area and devote the rest of her energy toward her growing nonprofit.
After completing her dental education, she will pursue a master’s degree in public health with concentration on global studies.
Meyer plans to return to Gambi for the fourth time next January.
“I think I will be international for the rest of my life in terms of going and coming [from Gambi],” she said. “I can’t let go of this.”
Olson, a high school friend of Meyers’ who returned to Bwiam Village with her for a service trip, said when he first walked through the village with her, he “could tell that she was at home.”
“It’s amazing to go back with her and walk through the village,” Olson, who is a graduate student at the Clinton School of Public Service, said. “The people have an incredible relationship with her — every one of them. She believes in them and they believe in her.”