'My worst fear is to raise my children with a sense
Epidemiologist takes teenage son on trip to Africa
By Allyson Bird
Office of Development and Alumni Affairs
Sarah Logan decided to take her teenage son to Africa in a moment of exasperation.
Austin, 14 at the time, slammed down his laptop, annoyed by the sluggish Internet connection. Then when Sarah asked him to unload the dishwasher, he told her she was ruining his life.
Sarah, an epidemiologist with a Ph. D. from MUSC in Biomedical Science, recently had returned from Tanzania, where she watched someone steam bamboo to create an emergency shunt to drain water from a child’s brain. She worried about her own four children, accustomed to private school education, medical care whenever they need it and food whenever they’re hungry.
“My worst fear is to raise my children with a sense of entitlement,” she said. Inspired by her Tanzania trip, Sarah had applied for a travel grant to work with Project Okurase, which aims to improve health and curb poverty in the wood-carving village of Okurase in Ghana. Some women and children there spend as long as 20 hours a day searching for water in the dry season.
Charleston's connection with Project Okurase began with a children’s West African dance company called Djole, a program launched in 1998 by the MUSC-based Family Services Research Center to keep kids out of trouble in a high-crime North Charleston neighborhood. The dance group connected with a drum maker named Powerful in Ghana and, after two years of fundraising, 21 kids traveled to the village of Okurase in 2006 to learn about their heritage and to provide HIV/AIDS education through dance and drama.
The dance group went to eat lunch in a field one afternoon with the Okurase performing artists and spotted village children watching them, hungry, from the perimeter. The South Carolina kids refused to eat until a volunteer divided up the food among everyone. Villagers asked Djole to return to Africa and help tackle problems. Through Project Okurase, members of Djole, other Charleston residents and people around the world travel to Ghana each year to provide services to the villagers.
Sarah Logan learned about Project Okurase after researching grants for overseas opportunities. If financially feasible, she decided, she would pay to bring her son along, hoping he would benefit from the experience. Instead, Austin found something to contribute.
Austin became obsessed with the possibility of the trip but, to get there, he had to overcome one major hurdle. Austin has autism, and Project Okurase co-director Dr. Cynthia Cupit Swenson wanted to conduct a home visit to decide if he could handle the overseas trip.
Sarah and Austin practiced answering possible questions before Dr. Swenson’s visit, and he nailed the interview. He spent several months working with a former teacher to develop a science curriculum for children in the village. He taught them about static electricity with balloons and capillary action with dye. He showed them how to make Oobleck, a slime made famous in Dr. Seuss' fiction.
“I was worried about how people would take him and if they would think he’s rude,” Sarah said. “They caught on, and everyone in Okurase went out of their way to make him feel comfortable.”
They even got Austin dancing with the drum circle one night.
When they came home, Sarah realized the challenges of bringing home scientific data collected by Project Okurase volunteers. Some of the data collectors avoided sensitive questions; others wrote illegibly.
Austin, who began playing with website coding in fifth grade, is now a junior in the advanced computer science track at Porter Gaud School. After hearing his mother’s frustration, he went up to his room for about an hour and wrote a data entry system that would work with an ad hoc wireless network that he could create. Not only did Austin develop a solution to Sarah's problem but an idea that could transform medical care in the village.
Sarah, her husband, Doug, and Austin returned to Okurase this summer, and Austin rolled out his data entry program. “People liked what he was doing,” Sarah said. “When we arrived in the village, he stepped out of the van, and they called him ‘my man.’”
The system sputtered at first but, after three days, it became fully functional. Austin wants to return to Okurase every year to perfect his system. Dr. Swenson said volunteers such as Austin leave the greatest impact on the village.
“You’ve got Austin, who has struggled his whole life,” Dr. Swenson said. “And he still gave back.”