First-hand look at Africa leaves an impression

By Ann Ruppenstein
March 26, 2014
The Town Crier

It was as a student at Leaside High School that Heidi Parker became interested in other cultures and countries.

“It started in Grade 12 when I did a project about HIV and AIDS in Africa and it opened my eyes outside of the world where I’ve been living,” Parker said recently from a coffee shop near Yonge Street and Eglinton Avenue East.

She embarked on her first trip to Africa as a Queen’s University undergraduate in 2010, visiting Kenya with the Queen’s Health Outreach organization.

“I just fell in love with East Africa,” she said. “Loved the people, the food and the environment.”

After graduating and completing her masters of teaching at the University of Toronto last year, Parker was one of 10 young Canadians selected to complete a six-month internship in Tanzania, Kenya, Ethiopia and Uganda with the African Medical and Research Foundation, which works with communities to improve public health.

Working primarily with a project known as Tuitetee, she focused on reproductive and sexual health for youth and adolescents.

“I worked a lot on different curriculums to teach or discuss with parents, teachers and counsellors how to deliver youth-friendly services and also do sexuality training for youth,” she said.

Through her experience in Tanzania, Parker evaluated training sessions to improve health care for mothers before, during and after giving birth, helped with training young people in matters of sexual and reproductive health — and even watched as a monkey climbed in through an office window.

Reflecting on her time abroad, she notes one of her favourite training sessions was a comprehensive sexuality education session for youth and adolescents.

“It was directly talking to men who have sex with men and commercial sex workers,” she said. “They’re facing so many troubles in their life and there’s a lot of stigma that’s attached to them, but they were the happiest group of youth that I’ve ever worked with.

“They were so energetic — they were participating so much — and it was amazing to see how resilient they are and how they are so happy to learn about all of this, because they know it’s helpful.”

Another initiative that stands out was a free health-testing day the AMREF staff ran to test their own body mass index, blood pressure and blood sugar, and for HIV.

“So many of AMREF’s health programs promote getting tested for HIV or just making sure that you are staying fit and healthy yourself,” she said. “So it was a really great initiative to not only talk to the community about that but to actually get tested themselves.”

Parker returned to Toronto on Feb. 17. She says she hopes she has left a lasting mark by way of the quality training and supervision guide she developed for project staff, and said the experience will have a lasting impact on her.

She now has her sights set on a career in an educational health setting.

“It gave me a push in the right direction of where I want to wind up, and I’m just so grateful that I had that experience and got to meet all the people,” she said. “I’m applying for jobs in Toronto and in Tanzania and Kenya.

“I would love to go back. I just love that place so much.”