October 10, 2014 Introducing: Our New Team Member Carmen!

Hello VaxTrac community! As my first full week comes to a close I’m happy to announce how thrilled I am to be a part of such a hands on and collaborative team. From the beginning I’ve been excited to work for a group that is directly impacting others around the world in such a positive way. I come from a Marketing and Business Management educational background and bring accounting and financial experiences from several different industries, including construction and legal practices. To finally have the opportunity to apply my office skills and creative passions for a worthy cause is a dream come true. I am in awe of the WeWork Wonder Bread facility we get to work in. We are definitely surrounded by a dedicated group of talented people that cultivates an inspiring work environment. Great for the coming winter months!

At the Oregon coast this past summer.

At the Oregon coast this past summer.

I moved to DC a year ago and originally hail from Seattle, Washington. I grew up there, as many others from the Pacific Northwest, with a huge love for the great outdoors. Anytime I can get to go hiking, running or swimming I’m a happy camper. As a little girl I wasn’t allowed to come inside unless it was time to eat; I miss those days!  I have enjoyed the east coast and try to see as much of this side of the country as I can. It’s amazing how much ground you can cover in just a short weekend trip. Everything is so close to each other! I love photography and I’ve been blessed with a lot of opportunity for adventure in the area. I’ve been camping on a beach with wild horses on Assateague Island, went rock climbing over a lake at New River Gorge, visited George Washington’s home in Mount Vernon and hope to have many other photo ops in this coming fall season. I also love food. I know it isn’t all that original, but I do enjoy playing around with different things and getting to eat, eat, EAT.

All in all, I’m pretty open to new things and the fact that I get to work with an organization directly impacting places and improving the lives of people around the world is just wonderful. I am beyond grateful and humbled to work with such driven and established people. I look forward to supporting all of our teams in administrative, HR and accounting roles. I’ll also be working with our team to upgrade our website. We’ve got a lot of great ideas and with the implementation of tablets in Benin and new project in Nepal coming up soon we’ll have a lot to share. As I continue to learn more about VaxTrac’s endeavors I’ll be sharing them with all of you on our social media platforms! Stay tuned, I think it’s going to a lot of fun!

October 7, 2014 Welcome: Lauren Spigel!

Lauren Spigel here signing in as VaxTrac’s newest Program Associate.  Tomorrow marks my one week anniversary with VaxTrac and I’m absolutely thrilled to be here.

I come to VaxTrac with several years of global health experience.  After focusing on international health as an undergraduate at the University of Maryland, I decided to go off into the world and get some field experience.  I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Nicaragua from 2011-2013, where I lived in a bustling community in the mountains, worked on health education activities on the municipal level, ate fresh avocados, adopted a puppy, and drank fresh juice out of the corner of plastic bags.

My work in Nicaragua primarily focused on sexual and reproductive health among women in rural areas. I worked with the local Ministry of Health to train brigadistas (community health volunteers) in various health themes, had women’s groups and a weekly radio show.  One of the most exciting projects that came out of my Peace Corps service is ChatSalud, a project that uses mobile phones to connect youth to sexual and reproductive health information via SMS. The project sparked my interest and passion for mobile health (mHealth), which takes advantage of the fact that 90% of the world’s population has access to mobile phones. mHealth provides an unparalleled opportunity to expand the reach of existing health care systems to the least accessible corners of the world.

Lauren doing mHealth research in Terrabona, Matagalpa Nicaragua.

Lauren doing mHealth research in Terrabona, Matagalpa Nicaragua.

Upon returning Stateside, I completed the Master of Public Health program at Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, where I became actively involved in the JHU Global mHealth Initiative and managed to incorporate mHealth into most of my classes.

I’m so excited to bring my knowledge and experience to VaxTrac’s projects.  Beyond that, VaxTrac has been so incredibly warm and welcoming.  My Nicaraguan dog Maní and I have been settling into life at the office and I’m so thrilled to be part of the VaxTrac family.

Lauren and Maní settling in at the new WeWork office

Lauren and Maní settling in at the new WeWork office.

More updates to come, as Meredith has informed me that we’re spending a good chunk of November in Nepal!

September 19, 2014 Trip Notes: Meredith on Navigating Nepal

Mark and I at the top of the summit! Just kidding... Monkey Temple.

Mark and me at the top of the summit! Just kidding… Monkey Temple.

 

The beautiful Summit Hotel in Kathmandu overlooks the bustling city below, nestled between sloping hills which sit comfortably in the shadow of regal snow-capped mountains. It is also full of International aid workers, because naturally, everyone wants to work in Nepal.  The government estimates in fact that there are over 15,000 individual organizations working in the country throughout all sectors. As you can imagine, I was a little hesitant to dive in and start navigating the waters of partnership building in such a highly saturated ecosystem, but my fears were quickly assuaged as we jumped right in and got to work (shout out to Joon and Ravi at UNICEF Nepal for being such wonderful guides during our first hazy 48 hours!).

Mark and I spent several days in Kathmandu meeting with various stakeholders from our partners (UNICEF and WHO/CDC), to key people from the national ministry of health, and various consultants and experts from the immunization, technology, and health system strengthening space. It was an exciting, informative, and exhausting first week to say the least!

If we thought we might get a nice relaxing weekend, we were mistaken. Instead, we worked with WHO to organize a site visit to Nawalparasi in the terai region, one of two districts in which we will be implementing in early 2015. As someone so aptly explained to us, Nepal is laid out like a sidewise strip of bacon: the top golden brown layer is the mountains, the stripy red/yellow middle part is the hills, and the deep red piece that runs along the bottom is the terai. As it turns out, we will be working along the delicious bottom strip of the country that shares a border with India.  Much like fresh bacon, Nawalparasi is sizzling hot.

Busy streets in Nawalparasi.

Busy streets in Nawalparasi.

Despite the steamy temps, we had an incredible couple of days with our colleagues from WHO, CDC, and the US Fund for UNICEF (have to insert another shout out here to Susanna, Keiko, and Michelle for being such great travel partners!). Not only were we all graciously welcomed by the District Health Office staff, we were able to gather almost all of the information necessary for our initial project planning after visiting several different types of health facilities and speaking directly with facility managers and community health workers. We saw that Nawalparasi has a very well structured vaccine delivery system and can even boast that it is a fully immunized district! Like any project, this one will not be without its challenges, but it’s always a huge advantage to have such support from a local level and we certainly found that in Nawalparasi. As a small cherry on top, we were able to find a few hours in our busy schedule to visit Lumbini, the sacred birthplace of Buddha. Even in the rain, there’s no denying that this is a beautiful place that compels one to pause, and self-reflect. It was a wonderful way to mark the midway point in our busy trip.

With health managers in Nawalparasi.

With health managers in Nawalparasi.

Our second week found us back in the smoky hustle and bustle of Kathmandu, meeting with some inspiring and impressive NGOs and attending an eHealth strategy workshop organized by the Ministry of Health and UNICEF, showcasing both local eHealth projects and organizations as well as those from around the world. It was so cool to see so much capacity around using technology to improve health outcomes. We left the workshop feeling more motivated than ever to get to work and find our place in this rapidly developing and innovative health system.

All in all, the trip was a huge success. It’s near impossible to sum up all of the things we did and saw and what a different experience it was for me to see this part of the world. We owe a great deal to our amazing friends and colleagues both in Nepal and in the US for making it all happen. There’s certainly another trip in our near future to visit our second district (Dadeldhura in the Far West) and I’m excited to share this beautiful country with the rest of our team. For now, I’ll leave you with some Buzzfeed worthy trip highlights. Namaste!!

At our wonderful Newari cooking class.

At our wonderful Newari cooking class.

 5 Things to Never Do Around Monkeys

  • Eat. Seriously, they will steal everything and you will be hungry.
  • Ride bicycles past them quickly. Apparently, you will invoke a terrifying hissing sound.
  • Take their picture. They will smell your weakness for dumb tourist souvenirs and exploit it.
  • Give them your “empty” bottles. Unless you want that last half an ounce sprayed all over your shirt as they proceed to turn the bottle into their new favorite chew toy game.
  • Hiss at them to go away. I’m looking at you, army guy at the airport. Not helping, they’re just getting angry.

 8 Things to Buy in Nepal

  • Tiny Buddhas. Statues for all your friends and family so they know how worldly you are!
  • Prayer flags. To decorate your neighbors cubicle.
  • Tiny Buddhas.
  • Yak wool shawls. Mostly because they’re all on sale during the summer (bargain!).
  • Tiny Buddhas.
  • Anything Kama Sutra related. Seriously, you can get anything.
  • Tiny Buddhas. (You can really never have too many.)
  • Singing Bowls. For the healing powers, and to distract people in meetings.

August 26, 2014 One Golden Truth

By Jessi Hanson, M&E Manager

In the last decade of working in international development, I have learnt one golden truth: Trust your staff on the ground to know best!  The international

Thibo, a Technician, contributes to a team session editing the Scorecard, in Benin

Thibo, a Technician, contributes to a team session editing the Scorecard, in Benin

development world is made up of usually two groups working together (hopefully in harmony) on a variety of projects in sectors that combat poverty, empower marginalized people, and aim to improve their quality of life.  These two groups typically include: international consultants or international staff, and national staff.  The first group consists of people from countries like the United States, Canada, England, or Japan, who often started out doing small volunteer stints abroad, maybe even worked in Peace Corps or the VSO.  Most later got a degree in a sector like education or public health, or studied international development and international relations.    They might have lived a few years abroad and authentically contributed to a few projects in the field, but a great majority work out of the main offices in cities like: Washington, D.C., London, or New York, and travel from time to time to advise or oversee projects in country.  We (and I humbly include myself as one) often get endearingly referred to as the gringos, muzungus, the weepoos.

The second group of development workers, the national staff, typically are from the country or region in which they are working, spend long days each week in field, speak the local language, and have a better understanding of the people that organization labels its ‘beneficiaries.’  They are the knowledge on the ground, the insight to the cultural contextual reality, and more often than not, have double the experience level and management expertise than us international

staff.

Get the red pen out!  A national team member records his recommended changes

Get the red pen out! A national team member records his recommended changes

It was a wonderful moment to see on one of my first trips to Benin, how much every international staff member recognized this ‘golden truth’ without ever specifically stating it.  It was demonstrated in their actions, the way they collaborated on decisions, and the thoughtful manner they spoke about our Benin teammates.  We, at VaxTrac, work hard on a variety of project initiatives to ensure our International Office and National Office have equitable inputs and decision making power.  It is also something we are working to instill in our monitoring and evaluation practices.

One example was on our last trip to Benin, in June.  We worked to develop a new monitoring tool, which we named the ‘VaxTrac Digital System Scorecard’, which assessed the use and capacity development of the health workers who we trained to use the VaxTrac digital system in clinics on a frequent basis.  For most of our health workers, the VaxTrac system is the first time that they ever turned on a computer or entered data using a keyboard; so it is pretty important that we track their progress with using this system, and in a way, that we can give feedback to them and measure over all our clinics where trainees are succeeding or need more guidance.

Pascal, our Field Supervisor, tests out the tool in a clinic

Pascal, our Field Supervisor, tests out the tool in a clinic

Developing a good monitoring tool can take many months if done right, and this time was no different.  As far back as January, we worked collaboratively with our Africa Regional Manager, Fidele, to draft the concept of a scorecard that would work in the local environment.  Next, our team in the USA researched and drafted a first version of the Scorecard.  It went back and forth several times via email to our different teams before we felt we almost had it.  On the June trip, we got the entire Benin team together in a room, projected the Scorecard on the screen, and watched sat back as Fidele led his national team to dissect the tool to perfection.  It took over two long hours, and then even more.  They picked it apart, reshaped boxes, scraped bits we in the US thought made sense.  And in the end, after several days of further pilot testing in the field and running the drafted tool by the health workers themselves to see their thoughts about the tool, we had a set product.

It takes a concerted level of humility, trust, and respect for your teammates to let a favorite pet product go for collaborative editing.  But follow the ‘Gold Rule’.  As an international staff member, I try to remind myself everyday to trust the expertise, vision and understanding that my national team members have for something we will apply in what is ‘their world’.   In the end, when we work alongside the best national team, we can do that, and know in the end, the vision is even brighter and will yield just not a better product but promote a sense of community even across oceans.

August 21, 2014 Visit to VaxTrac Headquarters in the US: An extraordinary experience of cultural exchange (VOYAGE AU SIEGE US DE VaxTrac, UNE EXTRAORDINAIRE EXPERIENCE D’ECHANGES INTERCULTURELS)

Fidèle Marc outside of the White House

Fidèle Marc outside of the White House

I was very excited when I got my entry visa to the United States, though on the flight, I was greatly disillusioned. After being on the plane the whole evening, we finally landed in the country of Aile Selasie (Ethiopia), twice as far from America than Benin. The journey was long and very stressful for both my courage and patience. We even had a stopover in Rome, the land of the Pope. Finally, we reached the land of Uncle Sam which was impressive and had a natural greatness. After an interminable wait for customs, I was received by my colleagues Shawn and Meredith. We drove to the VaxTrac office and then had a welcome lunch at a nearby restaurant. Surprise surprise, I was staying next door to the US Benin Embassy. Without wasting time, I visited the Embassy in honor of the homeland, and as we say in our country, a « yi kan xwé bi o ».

The welcome at the Embassy was very warm. My team and I had the honor of being received by His Excellency Mr. Omar AROUNA, the Ambassador. The following day, I had to try walking from the hotel to the office, as there are no “Zémidjan” in Washington. Walking is a culture here, and the most amazing part is that it takes the same time on a taxi or bus as it does to walk most places, so we must adapt because it is good for our health; “What a trip, that allows us to prevent so many heart diseases!”

On the streets of Washington, the people I met were very hospitable and interested in my African outfits; I had to take advantage of the opportunity to brag about my culture. It’s summer and it is warmer here than at home; so I could put my “baubas” made ​​in Africa. But beware, the bazins did not do ​​me any favors in the heat, I almost suffocated!

I visited many parks and public gardens with trips for wine, jazz and to meet friends of my colleagues. I even had a football game organized by Meredith and her friend Robert which was wonderful. The greenery of Washington is impressive but I was shocked that it is illegal to urinate in public here, as that is not the case at home.

The meals are very close to what we consume at home so I certainly had no trouble feeding myself.

On Sunday, I searched online for the nearest Catholic Church which was supposedly an hour away from my hotel. This was a great contrast with Germany where the cathedrals abound in the streets of cities that I visited there. I had to travel far I the US to get close to God, but then I reconsidered; God is One, so participating in a Protestant worship will not do any harm. But I was too late, the service was very short. God here is so smart that his worshipers go straight to the essentials; God here does not use too much of people’s time, or at least people in Washington use God’s time wisely.

The following Monday, I was taken by my colleagues Shawn and Meredith to Baltimore Airport for my flight to Atlanta where I was expected by Mark Thomas, Executive Director of VaxTrac. Two hours later I arrived in Atlanta, lost in a crazy world of passengers without knowing where to pick up my luggage. Everything is electronic! Suddenly, a little boy smiled and stopped at my level. He asked his parents to greet me and they helped me to navigate the big airport to retrieve my luggage. At the exit, I saw Mark Thomas with a warm sign and together we went to pick up my suitcase, then he took me to the VaxTrac Atlanta office, where I was greeted by my colleagues Mary Michael McDuff and Anita Narayanan. After a Staff Meeting via Skype with the Washington team, I was taken to the hotel, where I was enveloped by sumptuous comfort. The next day, I experienced a work day at the Atlanta office. Here, under the deafening quiet of nature, each of the professionals are in constant contact with the task at hand and each remains productive beyond expectations. Not even cell phone sounds break the calm. The few phone calls which I did hear were around break times. Five major documents were produced in eight hours of work. Great performance and lesson in work time management! That same night I had the honor of being invited to dinner at Mark’s place with his parents. Mark himself prepared delicious food that we enjoyed in a very friendly atmosphere. The reunion was very warm between the three Marks (Fidele Marc, Mark Jr. and Mark Sr.), Mark’s mom Marti and Ashely, our wonderful hostess. I will keep very fond memories of this evening.

DC Team enjoying the World Cup final

DC Team enjoying the World Cup final

 

Then came the discovery of the city of Atlanta. Mark Thomas Sr., father of Mark, drove us everywhere, from the University of Emory to CDC, and the Georgia Aquarium with edifying availability as, according to him, “to teach by example.” Each place we visited hinted at one lesson, “Dream big and pursue quality in all that you do.”

The next day I returned to Washington, DC to reunite with my colleagues Shawn and Meredith who took a very good care of me. I stayed in a top quality hotel where I had a panoramic view of the city of Washington. For the first time, I attended a baseball game in a very friendly atmosphere with my colleagues and their partners to whom I express my deep gratitude. We are a team that respects the integrity of the human being.

I finished my mission in the United States while keeping in the bottom of my heart the beautiful life lessons that I have learned.

 


 

Je fus très excité quand je reçus mon visa d’entrée aux Etats Unis. Sur le vol, ma désillusion fut grande. Après avoir volé la soirée entière, nous atterrissames au pays d’AILE SELASIE encore deux fois plus loin des Amériques que le Bénin. Le voyage fut long, nous faisant passer par la terre papale, et très éprouvant pour le courage et la patience. Finalement, nous atteignîmes le pays de l’oncle THOM avec un génie grandeur nature impressionnant. Apes une interminable attente pour les formalités douanières, je fus accueilli par mes collègues Shawn SARWAR et Meredith BAKER. Je fus conduis au siège de VaxTrac, puis après un déjeuner de bienvenue, à l’hôtel. Surprise pour surprise, je serai logé à côté de l’Ambassade du Bénin près des Etats Unis à Washington. Sans perdre de temps, je rendis visite à l’Ambassade en hommage à la terre natale, comme nous le faisons au pays : «  un yi kan xwé bi o ».

L’accueil fut très chaleureux. Mon Equipe et moi avions eu l’insigne honneur d’être reçus par son Excellence M. Omar AROUNA, l’Ambassadeur. Les jours suivants, il fallait expérimenter les marches matinales et vespérales de l’hôtel au bureau à Washington. Il n’y a pas de « Zémidjan » par ici. La marche est une culture. Et le plus étonnant, tu perdrais le même temps à bord d’un taxi ou d’un bus qu’à marcher. Alors il faut s’y adapter puisque c’est bon pour la santé. « Sacré voyage qui me contraignît à prévenir les Maladies Non Transmissibles ! ».

Les personnes rencontrées sont très hospitalières avec beaucoup d’intérêt pour mes tenues Africaines. Je devrais en profiter pour vanter ma culture. C’est l’Eté et il fait plus chaud ici qu’au pays ; alors, je pouvais mettre mes « baubas » made in Africa. Mais attention les bazins ne m’ont pas rendus service. J’avais failli suffoquer en dessous. J’ai visité beaucoup de Parks et de jardins publics sous l’accompagnement du vin, du Jazz et des amis de mes collègues. J’eu même droit à une partie de football organisée par Meredith et son ami Robert. Ce fut merveilleux. La verdure de Washington est impressionnante mais gare à vous si vous arrosez les herbes d’urine : C’est la Cour d’Assises qui tranche votre cas. Les repas sont très proches de ce que nous consommons au pays. C’est une mixture interculturelle parfaite. Je n’ai eu aucun mal à m’alimenter.

Le dimanche, je recherchai sur mon portable l’Eglise catholique la plus proche. Il faut y aller suite à 1h de voyage. Le grand contraste avec l’Allemagne. Pendant que les Cathédrales pullulent dans les toutes rues des villes Allemandes que j’avais visitées, il fallait voyager loin pour se rapprocher de Dieu. J’avais alors opté pour un plan B ; Dieu étant Unique, participer à un culte Protestant. Mais, trop tard. Dieu ici est si SMART que ses adorateurs vont à l’essentiel. Dieu ici n’use pas du temps des hommes, ou du moins les hommes à Washington utilisent judicieusement le temps de Dieu.

Le lundi suivant, je fus conduit par mes collègues Shawn et Meredith à l’Aéroport de Virginia pour mon vol sur Atlanta où m’attendait Mark THOMAS, le Directeur Exécutif de VaxTrac. Deux heures plus tard, j’arrivais à Atlanta, perdu dans un monde fou de passagers sans pour autant savoir par où aller chercher mes bagages. Tout est électronique. Soudain, un petit garçon qui accompagnait ses parents me sourit et s’arrêta à mon niveau, obligeant ses parents à me saluer et à négocier qu’il reprenne la route avec eux. J’en profitai pour m’orienter vers mes bagages. A la sortie, je vis Mark THOMAS avec une chaleureuse pancarte artistement conçue par Anita NARAYANAN notre Assistante de Programme. Ensemble, nous allâmes chercher ma valise, puis il me conduisit au bureau annexe de VaxTrac à Atlanta, où je fus accueilli par mes collègues Marie Michel MCDUFF, et Anita NARAYANAN. Après la réunion de service en ligne avec l’équipe de Washington, je fus conduit à l’Hôtel, où le somptueux confort m’étreignit.

Le jour suivant, j’expérimentai une journée de travail au siège annexe d’Atlanta. Ici, sous le calme assourdissant de la nature, chacun des professionnels dans un contact permanent avec sa source d’inspiration, reste productif au-delà des attentes. Pas de bruit de portable qui dérange. Les quelques rares coups de fils passés autour de moi, ne l’ont été qu’à la pause. Cinq grands documents conçus en huit heures de travail. Grande performance ! Et belle leçon de gestion du temps de travail. J’eu ce soir-là même l’honneur d’être convié au diner chez Mark Thomas Jr avec ses parents. Mark a lui-même préparé les délicieux mets qu’il nous a offerts dans une ambiance familiale. Les retrouvailles furent très chaleureuses entre les trois Mark, Maman Marti et la Reine des lieux. J’en ai gardé des souvenirs très filiaux.

Ensuit vinrent la découverte de la ville d’Atlanta et du diner d’au revoir. Mark THOMAS, père de Mark, nous a conduits partout, de l’Université d’EMORY à CDC en passant par la GEOGIA AQUARIUM avec une disponibilité édifiante comme pour à ses dires : « Nous instruire par l’Exemple ». Chacun de ces lieux visité ne laissait entrevoir qu’une seule leçon : « Rêver grand et rechercher la qualité dans toutes ses interventions. »

Le lendemain, je fis mon retour sur Washington avec mes Collègues Shawn et Meredith aux petits soins, logé dans un Hôtel à Cinq Etoiles où j’avais une vue panoramique sur la ville de Washington. Pour la première fois, j’assistai à une compétition de Baseball dans une ambiance de famille très conviviale avec mes collègues et leurs conjoints à qui j’exprime ma profonde reconnaissance. Nous sommes une équipe respectueuse de l’intégrité de la personne humaine.

J’achevai ma mission aux USA en gardant au plus profond de mon cœur les belles leçons de vie que j’en ai tirées.

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