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Santa Barbara Student Set to Embark on ‘Life-Changing’ Mission in Bolivia

14-year-old Heather Harkness will join the Rio Beni Health Foundation in bringing health care and outreach to isolated communities

Santa Barbara Middle School student Heather Harkness will depart July 11 with the Rio Beni Health Foundation for Bolivia, where they’ll help bring better medical care, clean water and health education to the people of the Rio Beni region.

“From the beginning, the project has coordinated its work with local municipal governments, the Department of Beni and the national government in La Paz, always determined to strengthen its commitment and cooperation,” said Dilo Negrette Arze, former mayor of Rurrenabaque and 
board director of the Rio Beni Health Foundation, which is celebrating its 10th year of helping the people of Bolivia.

The project has three principal activities, according to the Netzer-Brady International Web site: to provide regular clinical services to isolated communities, to promote preventive health care through education, and the provision of potable water.

Clinical services are conducted by mobile clinics, facilitated by small boats or 4WD vehicles. Education and prevention activities are carried out in the schools, at community health meetings, and by training community health workers in preventive and basic primary health care. Potable water initiatives are carried out directly with community participation.

“It is an honor to remember and give thanks to people who have big hearts, and who feel and see the necessity to help families and communities that lack the economic resources to cover their basic health needs,” said Alejandro Alvarez, lead guide and naturalist at Chalalan Ecolodge in 
Madidi National Park.

Harkness, 14, became involved when inspired by teacher Jim Brady of Netzer Brady International. The organization’s name “honors and celebrates the close friendship and working relationship between the Netzer and Brady families over the past 25 years, in particular Lou and Christopher’s collaboration on their work in the Upper Amazon rainforest in Bolivia whose family, along with the Brady family, forms Netzer-Brady International.”

Netzer-Brady International is committed to supporting the work being carried out by the Rio Beni Health Foundation. Brady mentioned an El Puente trip to Bolivia during class, sparking Harkness’ curiosity. She attended a meeting and said she was “amazed” at the opportunity.

What started as a small project by Dr. Luis Netzer, who began giving medical attention to a sprinkling of isolated villages along the Beni River, now reaches more than 60 villages in an area of more than 2,000 square miles.

The project has had key administrative support in the past from two nonprofit organizations, Direct Relief International (2000-04) and Concern America (2005-08).

Harkness said she was driven to step outside of her comfort zone and throw some elbow grease into a good cause and an unbelievable opportunity.

“After seeing what an amazing and life-changing experience this looked like, I really wanted to go,” she said.

Despite being deeply compelled, she admits it wasn’t an instant decision.

“Although I was really jazzed up about it, I did have my doubts,” Harkness said. “What if I couldn’t do it? Couldn’t afford it? Wasn’t qualified?”

Such questions were just a smattering of those that she said ran through her head. “Jim saw the ‘what if game’ playing on my face, and told me I was perfectly eligible,” she said.

Harkness added that on the plus side, she would get to visit a place she had never been to, one very different from what she was used to, and it would be a valuable experience.

“I would also be helping people, which I love to do,” she said.

Harkness said she hopes to fine-tune her Spanish-speaking skills, as she reminisces about the days when she used to be fluent, along with learning more about health care.

She said her concerns include the possibility of altitude sickness — those who journey to El Alto, Bolivia, from Santa Barbara are used to sea level — but “it will go away pretty soon, though.”

Another worry of hers is creepy crawlies, which is “thanks to the people who gave me the shots needed for the trip,” Harkness said, adding that mosquitoes have a “sweet tooth for me,” and that her parents are “lemons” and she’s “chocolate,” in a mosquito’s point of view.

Harkness gave a presentation before the congregation at her church, Unity of Santa Barbara, and shared a tri-fold display of pictures and information after the service. She said fellow church members were wholeheartedly supportive of her journey, with words of praise along with financial contributions.

Interested in following Heather’s journey? Click here to check out updates from the team.

Noozhawk intern Lindsey Weintraub will be a sophomore at the University of San Diego in the fall. She can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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