I often wonder how people actually get to live their dreams. I sat down recently with Jennifer Nielsen, Senior Program Manager for Nutrition and Health for Helen Keller International, and discovered someone who has actually done just that. Here is Jennifer’s story:
From economics to public health: “After getting my MA in Economics and African Studies at Johns Hopkins, I worked at USAID for ten years as a project manager designing education projects, and I came to believe that public health has the strongest tools to make a difference. I was attracted to malnutrition because of the impact: one-third of the world’s children are actually at risk. The problems are complex but the solutions are straightforward, so one can really make a difference. So, I went back to school and got a Ph.D. in Public Health and Nutrition at Johns Hopkins. I joined Helen Keller International in 2006, just after I received my doctorate.”
Most gratifying moment at Helen Keller International: “Working in Niger to turn around our efforts to reduce malnutrition and manage acute malnutrition relating to the food crisis in Diffa. When I first arrived in Niger with Dr. Victoria Quinn, our Senior Vice President of Programs, we had to drive for two exhausting days, along lengthy stretches of almost impassable dirt roads, to reach our office in Diffa. We found that the project was struggling. The staff, although unbelievably dedicated to their work and to helping their less fortunate compatriots, were in isolated and challenging conditions; they had very unreliable telephone lines, no internet access and had to cover a target region about the size of Texas with almost no paved roads or outside support!
Our goal was to persuade mothers to apply new practices in nutrition so they and their children would be healthier. We had a workshop with the staff to talk through the strategies and how to turn ideas into action. We were able to develop an approach for applying the Essential Nutrition Actions framework to help strengthen outreach from health centers to mothers in the surrounding villages, and to help the villagers understand why Helen Keller International was promoting these new strategies. The framework teaches mothers and other caretakers how they can provide enrichment to complementary foods after six months of exclusive breastfeeding, practices that can dramatically improve infant survival rates.
Later we faced similar challenges in the Zinder region, which is nearly as isolated as Diffa. That project added the promotion of family planning to its nutrition strategy, recognizing that since mothers typically have seven children, solving malnutrition must also reduce births that come too early and too closely spaced.
I went to Niger four times over a two-year period. During that time, I made a personal connection with the people in our Diffa and Zinder offices, and felt that this really helped turn the projects around and keep up morale. Mothers reported having adopted healthier nutritional practices in almost all areas and outcomes were noted in the communities. A personal bonus was being able to take a one hour plane trip to Diffa instead of the broken road. What a pleasure!”
Rewards of the job: “One of the things I love most about my job is the warmth and dedication of the people we work with: the local staff, villagers, and communities where we work. One of my best experiences was a trip to an outlying village in Niger. The mothers of the village swarmed us, and showered us with homemade baskets and gifts for treating their acutely malnourished children. The overwhelming gratitude and generosity from these people who had so little themselves was enormously moving. That really keeps me going!”
What’s exciting now: “I am working on three enhanced Homestead Food Production (HFP) programs in Nepal, Burkina Faso and in Tanzania. We’ve developed a model in Asia over the past 20 years, but we haven’t tried to translate it to Africa. We also need to produce evidence that the combination of more diversified and nutrient-rich food production along with counseling to ensure these foods are fed to pregnant and lactating women and to children after they reach 6 months of age actually improves child growth. We are convinced we can demonstrate that promoting the production and consumption of chickens and eggs, dark green vegetables and orange fleshed sweetpotatoes can reduce the very high levels of stunting in these populations. If we succeed, the strategy could really take off!
We are also experimenting with a “communal” HFP model in Burkina Faso, where the village model farm is cultivated by a small group of women who have been designated to become technical experts in improved agricultural techniques for the other women in their village. We work with the local communities so the program fits their traditions and preferences, and ask them to help us find ways to keep the “village farm leaders” motivated to continue over the long term. We want to find better and better ways for leaving an enduring legacy of healthier children and lands. I love the way HKI has a culture of continuously building on and strengthening our development models.
The inspiration of Helen Keller: “I’m inspired by the fact that Helen Keller’s own challenges and limitations never held her back and never kept her from understanding and helping those in need. She inspired people everywhere to give and contribute. And give credit to Annie Sullivan, who helped unlock her potential, and who inspired Helen Keller to go beyond!”
Recommended reading: “One of my favorite books is The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan. The best part is when, after discussing what’s so wrong with our own agro-industrial sector, he describes an alternative ecological approach to reduce environmental damage, obesity and the US budget deficit.”
What inspires you? Please leave a comment below and let us know what inspires you, whether it be your job, your family, your hobby…or something else entirely!