Fourteen-year-old Janet was on her way to school in Northern Uganda when she was abducted by rebels in the Lords Resistance Army, a militia known for terrorizing and brutal tactics. The teen migrated to the Congo where she was forced to become a child soldier and wife, bearing a child at 16 before escaping the LRA at age 21. Janet walked countless miles from Southern Sudan, while pregnant and with her 5-year-old, to Gulu Hospital in her homeland and was greeted by women she would soon aspire to be like.
Janet is but one of many child soldiers, orphans and sex slaves who overcame seemly insurmountable obstacles to serve their fellow Ugandans with the help of a Danville-based organization. Established by Danville resident Meg Styles, The Gretta Foundation aims to increase the "global nurseforce" and improve overall health by funding the education of nursing students in war-torn Uganda.
"These crippling nursing shortages where disease was the highest were undermining every global health initiative. Nurses provide 80 percent of all health care around the globe," Styles said. "We thought a simple and impacting way to address it was to provide impoverished people the opportunity to enter the field of nursing through nursing scholarships."
After traveling to 21 schools of nursing and affiliate hospitals and speaking with stakeholders in education, Styles and her associates discovered a huge shortage in capacity and technology within nursing schools. The ratio of professors to students is often one to 100 and nursing associations are often weak or unable to advocate for schemes of service.
At Makerere University in Kampala, only 30 undergraduate students and 10 post-graduate students are admitted every year. Scovia, who heads the university's nursing department, said the small school is still in the process of developing masters and PhD faculty. As a result, the small amount of nurses the school works with experience "brain drain."
"Not only are nurses often so greatly overworked, but they often get paid very, very little and they have few tools to help patients, and this happens in many, many countries," Styles said, adding that Africa has 24 percent of the global disease burden, 3 percent of the health care workforce but only 1 percent of its resources. "Nurses, consequently, migrate out of the profession and go back to villages or migrate out of the country to more industrial areas."
To increase nurse retention and combat disease, Styles established The Gretta Foundation in November 2007 and provided its first scholarship in 2008. The foundation chooses vulnerable scholars to enter Ugandan schools and Ugandan nursing associations, focusing exclusively on in-country education.
"When places like the United States are handling the nursing sources by poaching them from Uganda and other places where they're desperately needed, it has a lasting affect on Africa and it's not sustainable," Styles continued. "We wanted to make sure that anything we did would have the least amount of unintended consequences."
The Foundation's 25 scholars -- eight men and 17 women from Malawi and Uganda -- are bonded to work in country commensurate with each year of assistance. A baccalaureate nursing degree in Uganda takes four years and costs approximately $12,000, though scholars are also provided with a living stipend and money for room, board, food and supplies. The scholars are responding well to the Foundation and are excited about their studies, said Dorothy Nyaburu, an assistant accountant and scholar mentor at International Health Sciences University in Uganda.
"Health workers are few in Uganda and Sub-Saharan Africa as a whole. The scholars are making a difference in the community by making use of the skills they have learned on the wards," Nyaburu said, adding that scholars volunteer at hospitals during the holidays.
The extra hands are extremely helpful in Uganda's overcrowded hospitals, many of which routinely have patients spilling out of waiting rooms and active-labor mothers lining the floor of the maternity ward because there aren't enough beds or healthcare workers to tend to them. Nyaburu spoke of a year four nursing student who, during practicum in a maternity ward, helped one mother give birth and had no time to change gloves before the next woman walked in.
"I know it's a challenging career but it's about sacrifice and your heart and what you have for the people," said Doreen, a Gretta scholar. "Helping someone during when someone is sick, it's something great."
Another scholar named Martha spoke excitedly about being able to read and study in an uninterrupted setting. The scholarship, she said, "has really made a difference in my life."
"Not only will (scholars) have superior skills, they'll have management skills, leadership skills. They will be the nurses that will mentor other nurses and become the future of empowering the nurses in their country," Styles said.
The Gretta Foundation -- which is staffed entirely by volunteers and relies on donations to survive -- has also attempted to help increase the capacity of nursing schools through the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, but came up short. Styles said her ultimate goal is to "dig deep" in Uganda and then become more globally focused.
"I would want to see that the hospitals and clinics are adequately staffed with nurses, and see the nurses associations empowered," Styles said. "We need millions more nurses around the world, so how far this work can go and what it needs to do is almost limitless."
For more information on The Gretta Foundation, visit www.grettafoundation.org/index.html.