Change Agent

LinevilleOn a sprawling campus in rural Alabama, UAB graduate Kathy Bryson helps visitors get a taste of the hard life in a replica urban slum and trains international visitors to use “appropriate technology” to meet basic health needs.

By Jo Lynn Orr

Kathy Bryson grew up as a “third-culture kid”—a child who travels back and forth between rich and poor cultures without fully belonging to either one. In the 1970s, Bryson’s missionary parents moved the family from Alabama to a remote village in the Bolivian jungle to help some of the poorest people in the world. Bryson has no regrets about her upbringing; in fact, her mission is to give others a taste of the same experience.

magf11sifat-playLearn more about SIFAT in a slideshow and video“Those of us living in first-world countries tend to think that material success brings happiness, but that’s not always true,” says Bryson, a 1996 alumna of UAB’s School of Public Health. She is now the international director of Servants in Faith and Technology (SIFAT), an organization in Lineville, Alabama, founded by her parents, Tom and Sarah Corson, to train people to help themselves using available resources—and to show volunteers from the United States how they can help people in the developing world.

Building Bridges

SIFAT training at the local level focuses on a community’s assets. “In other words,” Bryson says, “what do the people have in addition to poverty? For starters, they have incredible social networks and—usually—green leaves. There are special techniques for extracting and maximizing protein from leaves to get vitamin A, which helps children ward off disease. Communities usually have mud and straw that are readily available and don’t cost a dime. Those can be used for fuel-efficient cook stoves.”

GardeningVisitors from Haiti, India, and Nigeria learn how rain gutters and the right mix of plants can supply communities with a safe source of essential vitamins.

Malnutrition in children is one of the deadliest health issues developing countries face, Bryson says. “A large segment of children on the planet are going to die from malnutrition. An adequate intake of vitamin A would help kids overcome the onslaught of environmental hazards and lack of sanitation that many of them live with.”

SIFAT also acts as a bridge between academia and people living in communities who could use their services. “We offer a two-week training session each May in which academics and community members from other countries have a chance to interact and then actually work together on projects,” Bryson explains. “We have an interesting mix of people during those two weeks. There could be someone working on an advanced degree in public health who hopes to go into development work internationally as well as a grassroots community leader from a tribal group in Guatemala,” Bryson explains. “We’ve had church and community leaders from 87 countries receive training here.”

The organization also collaborates with the UAB Sparkman Center for Global Health, directed by Craig Wilson, M.D., on field training, and the center provides scholarships for five UAB students to receive special training at SIFAT each year. (See “The Right Stuff.”)

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fall2011_lineville4The Right Stuff

Several UAB faculty members lead students on field trips to SIFAT’s training facility in Lineville, Alabama, notes Craig Wilson, M.D., director of UAB’s Sparkman Center for Global Health. The center’s International Public Health Summer Institute, which brings health professionals from around the world to UAB for three weeks of intensive training, has featured trips to SIFAT for several years, Wilson says, and “it always ends up being one of the highlights of their visits.”

Sophomore students in UAB’s Global and Community Leadership Honors Program have been visiting SIFAT since spring 2009 as part of a leadership class. Over the course of a weekend, they sleep in the compound’s authentic global huts, spend an evening working for food in the simulated urban slum (see photo above), and learn how local community leaders can use low-cost, site-appropriate technologies to meet basic human needs.

At SIFAT, visitors are taught techniques for drilling for water using mainly hand-powered equipment, rather than failure-prone electric or diesel machines, and learn how to create water-filtering systems that use sand and biofilm technology that can produce enough fresh water for 10,000 people a day. “So often, projects in poor communities rely on high-end equipment and theory,” Wilson says. “SIFAT is a very skills-based place. Going there is a valuable experience.”

Bryson, who earned a master’s degree in maternal and child health at UAB, says she is grateful for that training. “It gave me concrete analytical skills which have proved invaluable in opening doors at ministries of health in developing countries. Having an M.P.H. is sort of like having a union card—it’s an official credential that validates your activities. The skills I learned have also helped me to be a more astute advocate for the public health needs and concerns of the poor.”

Life Lessons

At its 176-acre training facility, SIFAT also offers summer youth camps that attract as many as 150 kids from all over the United States, Bryson says. “They spend the night in a specially constructed ‘global village’ and ‘urban slum’ in order to gain insight into the uncertainty and squalid conditions that many people throughout the world confront on a daily basis,” she explains.

Part of the training includes finding and then boiling drinking water. The experience also engages students in some form of work, such as weeding, for which they get paid to scale. “Then they go to the village store and purchase food, which can be just a handful of rice,” Bryson explains. “The program uses pesos and other currencies from different countries to make the experience as real as possible. We also have people at the store speak in different languages. It’s not unusual for campers to say things like, ‘This isn’t fair. I’m hungry.’ But the experience lasts only 24 hours. Then we bring the campers back to the world of creature comforts. At that point, most everyone eats everything offered in the cafeteria, and there are no more complaints about food.”

Bryson says the camp experience can be life-changing. “We have had people who went through the camp as kids come back as adults and bring their kids,” she says. “They want them to learn to cook with solar energy and make fuel-efficient stoves using mud and straw as fuel.”

The primary goal of the summer youth camps is to help kids who have grown up with every imaginable advantage to see how their lifestyles compare with those of most kids on the planet. “We want them to go back to the real world with a challenge to help those less fortunate in some way,” Bryson says. “We want the camp experience to be a wake-up call for American youth to get them involved in the needs of the world.”