Many Americans visit Jamaica for the warm Caribbean sunshine, sipping their pina coladas on sandy beaches as they eye an endless expanse of aqua blue.
So what was a team of 31 Eastern Kentucky University students, joined by some of their professors, doing miles from the coast in the middle of one big muddy mountain mess completing a pit privy (in everyday jargon, an outdoor toilet) for a spry 83-year-old Rastafarian?
Yet there they were high above Montego Bay as heavy tropical rains arrived.
And this was the highlight of their time in such a popular tourist destination? It certainly was for EKU graduate student and Chicago native Cornelia Lewis.
“My experience working as a team in the rain and mud to accomplish our service project was most rewarding,” said Lewis, a senior Honors student in the environmental health science program. “I realized that everyone in our EKU group had come from different socio-economic backgrounds and home environments, but we were all connected on a human level as we worked through the weather to help someone who was just like we were at one time in our lives.”
Prior to the EKU team’s visit, the “remarkable” Mr. Bongo had already dug a hole more than 10 feet deep and 8 feet in diameter, mostly through limestone using only a pick axe and a shovel. With coordination by the Jamaica Association of Public Health Inspectors and EKU environmental health science faculty member Dr. Gary Brown, the students were able to assist with sealing the newly constructed latrine by constructing a form, as well as mixing and pouring the concrete.
“The homeowner needed someone to help him because he could not do it all by himself,” Lewis said. “I know that no matter what the circumstances, I am not in this world alone. There is always someone willing to help make life better for me.”
While in Jamaica, the EKU team also attended the One Health, One Global Environment Conference, the largest international environmental health conference ever held and the first ever dedicated to “One Health.” As part of the conference, co-hosted by EKU and the University of the West Indies and attended by more than 400 health practitioners and academics spanning six continents, and an EKU-established study abroad short course, 16 EKU undergraduate students and 15 graduate students were able to interact with global and national experts. Before and after the conference, students had unique opportunities to experience the nation and see environmental health in action as part of specifically tailored tours for their benefit.
Outside the conference, students were also able to accompany Jamaican public health inspectors on tours of a pork production facility, wastewater and drinking water plants, and a food manufacturing and distribution facility. And, yes, they did make time to enjoy the beach and local food. On their last night, they enjoyed a sunset over the Caribbean from the cliffs of Negril.
“All of this was possible mostly because of one person, Dr. Gary Brown,” faculty colleague Dr. Jason Marion said. “For more than 10 years, he made multiple trips to serve as a senior lecturer at the University of West Indies-Mona located in the Kingston area. He is valued not only as an educator and consultant to the International Labour Organization and Wray and Nephew, Limited, but is also part of the public health and environmental health family in Jamaica. His efforts alongside his Jamaican brothers changed the face of environmental health in Jamaica, and he has had an indelible impact on the lives of 31 students and all the professionals who were present at the conference.”
Brown and Marion, both honored with Presidential Citations from the president of the Jamaica Association of Public Health Inspectors, are planning, along with their Jamaican colleagues, annual study-abroad trips through EKU. And a second One Health Conference is slated for 2020, thanks to overwhelming requests from scientists, thought leaders, Jamaican governmental officials and University of West Indies officials.
Marion said the conference would not have been possible without a multitude of partners and sponsors. “NGO partners such as the Jamaican Ministry of Health and the World Health Organization’s Pan-American Health Organization played an important role in establishing credibility for our inaugural conference. Most important, though, was the strong network of public health inspectors and the Jamaica Association of Public Health Inspectors. They really made the event a success.
“The world’s diseases move with little or no regard for human-constructed boundaries such as academic disciplines or geopolitical borders,” Marion continued. “As the world gets closer, warmer and more easily connected by rapid transportation, we must strive to continue to work together. It is our only hope. Environmental health must be an active member in the One Health community, and we have the largest undergraduate program in the East, so we at EKU can exert some support and leadership as needed.”
EKU’s Environmental Health Science Program offers a bachelor’s degree and is part of the Master’s of Public Health (MPH) Program. Established in the early 1970s, the EKU program is currently the state’s only accredited program and one of only 31 such programs in the U.S. accredited by the National Environmental Health Science and Protection Council. The program includes intensive study of the physical, chemical and behavioral changes required for protecting and enhancing human health. For more information, visit ehs.eku.edu, contact Chair Vonia Grabeel at firstname.lastname@example.org call 859-622-6343. For more information on graduate specializations in industrial hygiene or environmental health science, contact Dr. Gary Brown at email@example.com. For more information about the One Health Conference, contact Dr. Jason Marion at firstname.lastname@example.org visit onehealthconference.com.