Travel Experiences US Residents
Christianson Fellowship Helps Bring Social Impact Projects to Indonesia, Madagascar, and Mexico
Christianson Fellowship Helps Bring Social Impact Projects to Indonesia, Madagascar, and Mexico

Christianson Fellowship Helps Bring Social Impact Projects to Indonesia, Madagascar, and Mexico

September 12, 2019

6 -min read

Jakelynn Wert gained admission to every university she applied to, but deferred. She decided that a gap year exploring environmental conservation on-the-ground was important before stepping into the classroom.

“I intend to study environmental science in college and this experience will have an impact. It will make things more real than a college classroom can,” Jakelynn told us.

Jakelynn will be looking at the human factors contributing to climate change, in particular waste management in northwest Bali, Indonesia through a volunteer project with Biosphere Foundation, an organization devoted to the intelligent use of earth’s natural resources.

Jakelynn is one of four extraordinary young women who’ve been awarded InterExchange Christianson Fellowships to embark on social impact projects in Indonesia, Madagascar, and Mexico. The InterExchange Foundation awarded more than $29,000 in grants to this second cohort of 2019 grantees! Read on to learn more about their inspiring projects.

Our Christianson Fellow Maggie Poulos

Margaret Poulos

Improving the livelihoods of female weavers
 Oceanside, New York
 Fort Dauphin, Madagascar
 Macalester College

After writing her senior thesis on the global history of the bandana, Margaret “Maggie” Poulos gained insight into how textiles and crafts can be unique tools for social justice. This insight, coupled with her interest in international development and social science research, led her to volunteer with SEED Madagascar’s Project Mahampy—a three-year, sustainable development project that aims to improve the livelihoods of traditional female reed weavers across six village clusters in southeast Madagascar.

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Mahampy, a locally sourced reed, is closely tied to Malagasy culture and spiritual beliefs, and the weaving of traditional products with this reed provides vital supplementary income for many households.

“Mahampy has a deep connection to the culture in Madagascar. You’re born onto a Mahampy mat and wrapped in one when you die,” Maggie told us.

Project Mahampy’s goals are to implement a strategy for community-based, reed-bed conservation management, capitalize on opportunities to increase and sustain income for traditional female reed weavers, and develop support mechanisms to empower them.

As the Women’s Livelihoods Specialist, Maggie will conduct interviews and focus groups to better understand the female reed weavers—the barriers and opportunities they face—to help inform the creation of a Weavers Association to empower the women and connect them with markets and traders.

“The Christianson Fellowship is making it possible for me to spend one year in southeast Madagascar working on an incredible project, building my skills in international development, and immersing in Malagasy culture.”

Our Christianson Fellow Shivani Raman

Shivani Raman

Supporting community health workers in rural Mexico
 Jaltenango de la Paz, Chiapas, Mexico
 Pearland, Texas
 Rice University

Chiapas, located in southern Mexico along the border with Guatemala, is one of the most impoverished and marginalized states in the country. Access to quality healthcare and economic opportunities is limited. Compañeros en Salud (CES), the Mexican branch of the U.S.-based NGO Partners in Health, is working to change that.

CES provides 10 rural communities in Chiapas with a year-long resident physician and clinical supervisor, medications and medical equipment, financial support for patients needing specialized care, and a team of community health workers.

Aspiring doctor Shivani Raman is spending one year before medical school to help support this vital health program.

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As a Community Health Worker Program Assistant, Shivani will support a cadre of female Community Health Workers. Known as acompañeros (because they “accompany” patients through their health conditions), these women promote health by serving as a link between the local clinic and patients within the communities. They conduct home visits to help patients manage a broad range of health conditions, such as chronic diseases, mental health, and maternal health.

“By visiting patients directly in their homes and assessing their health with respect to the sociocultural context of the community, the acompañeros play a crucial role in improving patients’ health outcomes,” Shivani told us.

Shivani will support the acompañeros, traveling to rural communities to meet with them and help resolve any challenges they face. She’ll also deliver monthly education workshops to help acompañeros expand their knowledge and skills, and conduct data to help monitor and evaluate the program.

“I’m very excited to learn about health promotion in rural communities and form meaningful cross-cultural relationships with community members.”

Our Christianson Fellow Gardenia Casillas

Gardenia Casillas

Fighting inequity by improving access to quality surgical care
 Jaltenango de la Paz, Chiapas, Mexico
 Salinas, California
 University of California – Berkeley

Pre-med student Gardenia Casillas will spend one year volunteering with Compañeros en Salud (CES), the Mexican branch of the U.S.-based NGO Partners in Health, to monitor and evaluate a nascent surgical care program in rural Chiapas, Mexico.

Gardenia is carrying on the vital work that 2018 Christianson Fellow Will Pavlis did in helping to re-open the much-needed surgical care unit at Hospital Basicó Comunitario Ángel Albino Corzo.

In the summer of 2019, Texas-native Alicia Leong volunteered as an early childhood nutrition intern at community-run pre-schools in Eswatini. While providing dietary advice, Alicia realized that the schools were doing their best to provide students with nutritious meals. They had knowledge of healthier options, but lacked access to them. Alicia also learned that there was a lack of awareness about health services in the community.

“The experience showed me how it’s important to consider not just the biomedical aspects, but also the social aspects—what’s going on in a child’s life—when trying to understand healthcare maintenance,”Alicia told us.

Alicia decided to defer medical school at Mount Sinai to return to Eswatini and continue working in healthcare, specifically on improving adherence to TB medication through a pilot food assistance program with the Baylor College of Medicine’s Eswatini Tuberculosis Centre of Excellence. Mount Sinai’s “flex-med” program allows aspiring physicians like Alicia to gain early admission and then take a gap year of service.

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CES wants to offer communities in the Sierra Madre area of Chiapas with an accessible, safe, and affordable option for surgical care—an option that had long been missing. Gardenia will apply her educational background in public health to design and implement a monitoring and evaluation system and use her Spanish fluency to connect with local staff.

“I feel that Partners in Health is an ideal place for me to gain a better understanding of my privilege, self-reflect on my duty to serve, and to leverage my skills and knowledge to make this world better in some small way.”

As a doula (a trained, non-medical champion who supports another individual through a significant health experience, such as childbirth), Gardenia also hopes to learn from traditional midwives at the local birth center in the region.

Our Christianson Fellow Jakelynn Wert

Jakelynn Wert

Promoting environmental stewardship
 Bali, Indonesia
 Durham, North Carolina
 Riverside High School

Jakelynn traces her passion for environmental stewardship to childhood field trips to Biosphere II, a human-made, closed-system environment in Arizona. She then spent several summers with Youth Conservation Corps in rural New Mexico, volunteering in land conservation and sustainable farming. After volunteering with Biosphere Foundation in Indonesia and learning about the trash management problem in northwest Bali, she knew she wanted to get more involved before she headed to college.

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Biosphere Foundation, based in Bali, inspires intelligent use of earth’s natural resources and empowers individuals to become leaders in environmental stewardship. They liaise with people in the community to maintain livelihoods that rely on the integrity of the island’s environment.

Many villages in northwest Bali contacted the Foundation to help them create waste management solutions within their communities. A proliferation of poor trash management practices, such as dumping hazardous material into waterways and burning mountains of waste, stems from a lack of education on sustainable practices and the infrastructure to implement them.

Biosphere’s Trash Management Program will partner with local leaders to create self-sustaining waste management systems in key villages within the Buleleng Regency of northwest Bali within the next three years.

To achieve this goal, the Foundation is first launching an education and outreach initiative to educate community members about the issue. Jakelynn will support this initiative as a Youth Trash Champion. She’ll visit local schools to help create awareness about the impact of current waste practices and build relationships with local youth.

“As an eighteen-year-old, I will be the main connection between the Biosphere Foundation and youth leaders in northwest Bali, cultivating relationships through outreach events and school visits.”

The Christianson Fellowship is awarded to U.S. citizens between 18 and 28 who have independently arranged a service project abroad for at least six months. Selected grantees receive up to $10,000 in funding.


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After earning a M.A. in Diplomacy & International Relations and teaching English in South Korea, Ashley joined InterExchange to promote cross-cultural understanding and help others have amazing experiences abroad.


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