Recent graduate develops connections with hundreds of children in Mexico

Lindsey Thomas ’12 created her own capstone course for her last semester at Linfield College, developing and carrying out a health education program for more than 350 children in one of the poorest regions of Mexico.

The Linfield student was so moved by the warmth of the people and the economic conditions and depth of poverty on a study abroad trip to Oaxaca last year that she returned there this spring with a preventive health program she had developed called “Building Healthy Habits.” Thomas raised funds from friends and family, and then spent four months teaching children in six squatter communities located around a garbage landfill outside Oaxaca.

“Lindsey did a lot of research to come up with tasks for children from poor backgrounds, and taught them very basic health skills,” says Dawn Graff-Haight, a health education professor from Linfield College.

The rural mountain valley is home to indigenous groups whose remote location has protected their traditional culture. Only one of the six communities is served by a paved road, to accommodate garbage trucks, and many children accompany their parents to the dump to scrounge for bottles and other usable items that will bring a few pesos.

Oaxaca suffers from a severe lack of health care workers, hospital facilities and medicine, making preventive health care critical. The Linfield health education and Spanish student worked with a local nurse to teach children in six schools about dental hygiene, school cleanliness and exercise, and she talked to children and parents about nutrition and personal hygiene. After school, children went home and taught siblings and parents.

“One day I brought some soap, and you should have seen the little kids,” Thomas says. “They were so excited at the clean smell on their hands. When we gave them their first toothbrush they jumped around with excitement.”

Bathing and brushing teeth are difficult due to limited water and resources. Although the water truck passes by regularly, families and schools struggle to afford the costly water. Thomas says they are in the process of installing hand-washing stations, but are still short on funding.

“These warm, friendly people have little formal education, but a priority is to help their children learn and lead happy lives,” Thomas said. “They want their children to have access to education, and they will do anything they can to accomplish this goal,” she wrote in a trip blog.

Thomas approached and partnered with a Salem-based organization, Friends of Pimpollo. The all-volunteer group, founded by John Kerr, has sent 50 teams of volunteers to help build schools and provide educational opportunities for children in Southern Mexico, where education for many children stops after elementary school. Thomas will begin a formal internship with the group this summer.

“Lindsey is a real trail blazer,” Graff-Haight says. “This program was something she created from nothing. She’s got a light inside of her, and she has already inspired other Linfield students who hope to pursue similar work.”

Thomas graduated from Linfield College in May. “The classroom learning was important,” she says, “but the connections I made outside the classroom really helped deepen my understanding. Now I can’t imagine a life without community service. There are so many ways to get involved. If you put your heart into it, you can do anything.”