By: Ellen Agler, CEO
My six-year-old daughter started back to school last week. She beamed with pride as she got herself ready to move up from kindergarten to first grade. Her back-to-school ritual included making sure she had all the school supplies on her list – pencils, paper, glue, notebooks – and carefully packed them into a brand new purple backpack.
One thing she wasn’t worried about was whether she was healthy enough to be able to attend school this year. She didn’t even have to wonder if she would have enough food to support her ability to grow and learn. But for many kids around the world, going back to school doesn’t always mean being healthy enough to take full advantage of the educational opportunities they may have access to. For hundreds of millions of children, living with a heavy burden of intestinal worms is a normal part of childhood.
But having a belly full of worms is far from normal. Hookworm infections can cause such severe anemia that cognitive development is dramatically impaired. School absenteeism has been shown to be up to three times higher in children with untreated parasitic infections. And if a child has a belly full of worms, it’s likely the worms are absorbing key nutrients and calories that should be going directly to the child.
Last year, the week before Christmas, I had the chance to take my daughter with me to see a launch of one of the END Fund supported deworming programs. She saw hundreds of children with bellies swollen from worm infections and malnutrition, looked under a microscope at the worm eggs that were inside these kids, and even was invited by a village elder to help hand out deworming medicines to children that needed them.
When she came back from this eye-opening trip, she gave a presentation about what she saw to her kindergarten class. I smiled as she clarified to her classmates that, “no, the kids don’t eat the worms, they accidentally eat worm eggs and the worms hatch and grow in their bellies. But once they have medicine, they just poop the worms out!” When we got home from that trip, she dumped out her piggy bank and insisted on donating all of her coins to help more kids get deworming medicine.
Over the summer, I got an email from one of the moms of a child in my daughter’s kindergarten class, explaining that her daughter was still talking about my daughter’s presentation. She was worried about the kids with worms and wondered what she could do about it. We consulted with our daughters together and they came up with the idea to have a lemonade stand to raise money to help deworm more kids. They decided that instead of setting a price for a cup of lemonade, they would let people know that 50 cents could help one child get dewormed and encourage them to decide what they wanted to pay for the lemonade. Quite a clever fundraising idea, indeed! And within a few hours of manning their lemonade stand, dancing about with the signs they had painted, and coaxing each passerby to stop, they had raised 100 dollars. They beamed with delight and pride that they were able to help 200 kids get the medicine they needed to go to school feeling better.
In this back-to-school season, I invite all of you to talk to our own children or the children in our lives and our communities about some of the simple barriers and challenges that going back to school can bring for children around the world.
One of my favorite videos helping to explain to kids the power that deworming has on children’s lives is told through the eyes and experience of ten-year-old Mia. And, perhaps, if you are so moved, please do consider making a donation to help make sure that we can help even more kids around the world get back to school without worms in their bellies.