Daniel Erchick, an amputee, volunteered in Ghana and Sierra Leone, and now works for the International Vaccine Access Center in Baltimore.
Daniel Erchick knows that when it comes to public health issues, major changes take time. It’s something he discovered during a summer volunteer trip in Ghana as a student at Rice University. “Like a lot of first time volunteers, we expected to do a lot, to have a big impact. In reality, the challenges we encountered are ones that are quite complicated and don’t always change overnight,” he says.
Since then, Erchick has dedicated himself to public health issues. He now works for the International Vaccine Access Center in Baltimore. His experiences in Africa, first in Ghana and then in Sierra Leone, sparked his interest in public health and provided him with valuable experience in the field.
Erchick, who was born with one arm, studied biology at Rice. After finishing his degree, he visited Sierra Leone while working for Beyond Traditional Borders, a Rice initiative that engages students to solve global health issues through engineering.
While in Sierra Leone, he visited a prosthetics clinic and met the amputees employed there—people he’d later work alongside. He learned that the organization wanted volunteers that could “build the clinic’s capacity to offer low-cost, locally manufactured devices, such as prosthetic feet and orthotic braces for the correction of clubfoot. Given my background, this was something that I could assist with, so I packed up and moved to Sierra Leone.”
He knew the challenges couldn’t be fixed overnight, so he committed to spending a year in Sierra Leone, which was funded by Rice University through a Wagoner Fellowship. While working at the prosthetics clinic, he became aware of other disability issues. “After about a year, I had moved outside the clinic to work with the disability community more directly, so I felt like I was beginning to come in contact with the real issues, and even make some traction at addressing them in our district.”
He wanted to put more time into the work he was doing, so he decided to stay in Sierra Leone a second year. He made ends meet by doing freelance work in copy editing, writing and communications. “Although I enjoyed it, I was really there to work with the disability community, so any time spent freelancing was taking away from my other work.”
He learned about critical issues for people with disabilities in Sierra Leone, such as discrimination, funding education, and improving medical services and employment opportunities for people with disabilities. “For special schools, we really pulled for increased funding and upgraded status of teachers of students with disabilities,” Erchick says. “This was identified by a number of key stakeholders as a major reason why education for the disabled lagged behind.”
By working within the community, Erchick’s perceptions of himself also changed. “Although I never expected it, working with the disability community in Sierra Leone helped me to become more comfortable, proud really, of my own disability,” he says. “As a young person growing up in the States, I had little interaction with other disabled individuals, and disability was something I tried not to think about, and when I did, overcoming disability was my focus.”
[quote float=”left”]“I’m sure that the school of public health is looking for students who have international experience. It brings a much richer perspective to class room discussions and projects.” Daniel Erchick[/quote] “The individuals I worked with are some of the strongest, most enlightened people I’ve ever met,” Erchick says of his peers with disabilities in Sierra Leone. “I was proud to walk amongst them, a feeling that hit home especially hard when I had the opportunity to join a parade of disabled individuals and supporters marching through the streets in celebration of the International Day of Persons with Disabilities in 2010.”
During his second year in Sierra Leone, Erchick applied for and was accepted to the master’s program in public health at Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health. Erchick was sad at the prospect of leaving, but he was ready to take the next step, which would allow him to have an even greater impact on the communities he worked with. The importance of public health as well as the larger impact of the field is clear in the Bloomberg School of Public Health’s tagline: “Protecting Health, Saving Lives—Millions at a Time.”
Erchick’s experiences in Sierra Leone were essential to his application for graduate school because they provided him with experience in the field of public health, which was required for the program. He also thinks that having international experience made him a more competitive applicant. “I’m sure that the school of public health is looking for students who have international experience. It brings a much richer perspective to class room discussions and projects,” he says.
It also provided valuable experience for his work at the International Vaccine Access Center. “In many areas of public health, international experience is valuable, and even required for certain positions, leaving people new to the field in a chicken-or-the-egg sort of situation,” Erchick says. “To get to that international position, some people first work for a few years in the ‘head office’ to earn the opportunity to travel, others decide to volunteer through Peace Corps or other programs. In my opinion, it’s worth the effort however you can make it happen.”
Erchick recently visited Nigeria through his work, where he documented vaccination storage practices and took part in meetings to discuss accountability within Nigeria’s vaccination program. In his spare time, he is also working on a book about people with disabilities in Sierra Leone, which he describes as a “labor of love.”
In a way, it seems like Erchick’s entire career has been a labor of love, though he gets paid for the work he does with the International Vaccine Access Center. That’s because he’s passionate and driven about what he does. He knows that making changes isn’t something that just happens overnight.
[quote]“In many areas of public health, international experience is valuable, and even required for certain positions.” Daniel Erchick[/quote]
This article was published by International Student Voice Magazine with permission from Mobility International USA. See the original article here.
The mission of Mobility International USA is to empower people with disabilities to achieve their human rights through international exchange and international development. To learn more about MIUSA, click here.