DARIEN — New Canaan High School seniors Jenny Loomis and Liza Cuoco were in for a life-changing experience when they arrived in Uganda in August.

Through the Darien-based leadership program LEAP4Change, the girls spent a week in the town of Kamuli, where they learned about problems its residents face. The organization encourages students to collaborate with different communities to create local and global change. Loomis’ focus was health care, while Cuoco centered her project around world peace.

“On the first day we showed up to this health center to talk to some women,” Loomis said. “We thought it was going to be a couple people, and there was probably 200 people there.”

With help from a translator, Loomis and Cuoco spoke to the large group of women to try to understand their health problems. The two worked with Saving Mothers, an organization dedicated to eradicating preventable maternal deaths and birth-related complications in developing countries.

“We tried to think of ways to make maternal health more accessible,” Loomis said.

More Information

To donate and for information, visit www.gofundme.com/maternal-health-kamuli-uganda

To learn more about LEAP4Change, visit leap4change.org

In collaboration with Saving Mothers, the girls sent four doctors to Kamuli in June to train health care workers there. Loomis and Cuoco have raised $3,070 of their $7,500 goal on GoFundMe to help provide materials for maternal health and training.

“We trained 44 people from 22 health centers,” Loomis said.

They hope to raise $14,000 total to provide the community a portable sonogram and telemedecine for a year. The two have Skyped with members of the Kamuli community and have maintained an open line of communication.

Loomis shaped her project around maternal health and said being in the African town was eye-opening.

“It’s a lot more personal now,” she said. “It makes it all a lot more real to me. I know there’s real people that have been affected by what we have done.”

Loomis said they spoke to health workers on all levels, including nurses, midwives and village health teams. Many of the health centers she visited in the small town had medical workers, but not what would be considered doctors. She described some of the centers as cinder-block rooms with two midwives and almost no supplies.

“It’s like comparing Everest to an anthill,” Loomis said. “It’s just completely different.”

The county hospital in Kamuli was a little bigger, she said, with a maternity ward and a doctor available at all times. However, even this facility faced difficulties.

“There was no running water. We took a picture of an out-of-stock list. There were no rubber gloves, no syringes. ... It’s crazy how they manage,” she said.

Lauren Calahan, founder of LEAP4Change, said the goal is to have enough trained birth attendants for the district’s population; the attendants are taught in hospitals so they can help back in the village.

Right now, “they are less than half of what they need,” Calahan said.

Cuoco worked side-by-side with Loomis, and also worked on building peace between men and women.

“Right now, the community is very male dominated,” Cuoco said. “Men and women really don’t have much more of a relationship than ‘You’re my wife, you have children and that’s your role.’ ”

To work toward changing that mentality, the girls developed preliminary plans for a leadership education program, with the goal to get men in the community more involved in maternal and child health services, Loomis said.

Cuoco said her project for world peace came from who she is as a person.

“I feel like any conflict in the world would be solved if we just got along,” she said. “Obviously that’s not so simple, but we have to start somewhere.”

Loomis said the ability to build a personalized program and the connections she made with the Kamuli community are some things that separate LEAP from other programs.

“It feels weird to come home,” Loomis said. “The fact we get to come home and now I know their names and I’ve talked to them and they’ve learned my name. I’ve played games with them. It’s kind of hard to come back and know that you’re leaving so many thousands of people. They’re like some of the happiest people ever.”

dj.simmons@hearstmedia

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