Looking around the maternity care room at an advanced, well-developed hospital in The Gambia, senior Fatoumata Jaiteh knew things were wrong: Too many mothers and their children were packed in together, and the women lacked resources for a healthy start for them and their newborns.
Jaiteh was visiting Farfenni General Hospital in rural Gambia, West Africa, in the summer of 2017. She easily could have left the situation with just that observation during her two-month visit to her parents’ homeland; instead, she’s doing something about it.
“I have the tools to be able to address this issue,” she said of her thoughts at the time.
Upon returning to St. Thomas, Jaiteh started a nonprofit, From Mother to You, dedicated to pulling together the resources Gambian mothers need in their children’s early months of life – everything from clothing to diapers and wipes, to cleaning materials for bottles. Drawing on the knowledge she gained in her biology and global health classes as a double major at St. Thomas' College of Arts and Sciences, Jaiteh had the confidence to develop an informed course of action to make an impact on a problem close to her heart.
Almost all of Jaiteh’s extended family still resides in The Gambia, where the infant mortality rate is more than 10 times higher and the maternal mortality rate is more than 50 times higher than in the United States.
She points to the Gambian values of communal care and collaboration her parents raised her with as key to sparking her desire to help make a positive impact.
“It’s all meshing together: my passion of wanting to help people, trying to take something that’s structured from my education, and mixing those together so it’s more performative and has the backing of evidence,” Jaiteh said. “We need some sort of [maternity care] system to raise the overall health of the nation. It works in many places and could work there, too.”
As her efforts have solidified into action and drawn support from the St. Thomas and continued collaboration with the local Gambian community, Jaiteh was featured in a 2018 St. Thomas student documentary as part of the Changemaker Film Festival. Students voted the video featuring her as the festival’s winner. The festival was an extension of St. Thomas’ status as a designated Changemaker Campus through Ashoka U, a global consortium working to inspire a culture of social innovation in higher education.
She was also one of 11 St. Thomas students who attended the Clinton Global Initiative University (CGI U) in Washington, D.C., last fall to present her problem-solving idea. Each year, CGI U hosts a meeting where students, university representatives and experts meet to develop innovative solutions to pressing global challenges.
“She has learned that in order to be that person who practices changemaking, you can’t do it alone,” said Manuela Hill-Munoz, program manager and changemaking director of student engagement for St. Thomas’ Center for the Common Good. “You have to have these soft skills of seeking empathy, learning to walk with a community, building those relationships. She has developed those through different leadership programs, different roles and groups, and her classes.”
Add everything up and it’s no surprise the St. Thomas community voted Jaiteh as one of three finalists for the Tommie Award, given annually by votes of students, faculty and staff to the senior who best represents the ideals of St. Thomas Aquinas through scholarship, leadership and campus involvement.