In a room in Nuestros Pequeños Hermanos (NPH) in Miacatlán, Mexico, Alaina Hall sings a song to the tune of “La Bamba.” But instead of focusing on a dance like the original does, hers touts handwashing. Her audience is 10 3- to 6-year-olds, and her aim is to help them understand why it’s important to keep their hands clean and to not put anything but safe food and drink into their mouths.
Hall graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in May with a degree from the School of Nursing. In July, she headed to Mexico to begin her President’s Engagement Prize project called “Healthy Pequeños,” or “Healthy Little Ones.” Since that time, she’s worked at the NPH clinic as a nurse, conducted evaluations on what behaviors might be making people sick there, and in the first of three lessons, taught hundreds of children about hygiene. She’ll offer a similar tutorial to caregivers this November or December.
“When I first got here, I spent a little time getting acclimated, and then I started assessing risky behaviors that could cause infections like not washing hands, not using utensils,” she explains. “I also spent time with each of the sections of kids, basically to observe.”
Hall quickly noticed three behaviors she wanted to prioritize: hand hygiene, consumption of soiled foods, and a tendency to put almost anything—including non-food items—into mouths. With her main objectives settled, she created a curriculum, with guidance from her Penn Nursing mentors Cynthia Connolly and Nancy Biller.
“Having not done this before, I wasn’t sure how much hand-holding Alaina might need. But she is really driving the bus,” says Connolly, the Rosemarie B. Greco Term Endowed Associate Professorship in Advocacy. “She developed a curriculum in Spanish and English. She was able to get part of a water-filtration system donated. She’s really assessing the situation at the 30,000-foot-level, and then also, each child in a developmentally appropriate way.”
To that end, Hall’s teaching program tackles risky-behavior challenges differently for different age groups. For the littlest, it’s singing songs, but for slightly older children, she decided on a large mural project made from pictures and signs the participants will create. She’s also planning to incorporate pertinent books, plus coloring, charades, games, and puzzles.
“Some of the older kids really get into it, but the younger ones get distracted,” she says. “Like with any subject, it takes a lot of prompting” for the message to stick.
That’s where Hall hopes some of the adults who work at NPH will come in: She made sure her curriculum includes lesson plans and activity options that could continue once she is no longer there, spearheading them to build sustainability. And physical changes to the space, like new filtered water fountains and handwashing stations made from old water pipes, should make a difference, too.
Ultimately, the idea is to teach everyone at NPH, adults and children alike, why such practices are important, but also to make it easier for them to carry out. With the fall children’s lesson already under her belt, Hall is feeling more confident about those she’ll give in the winter and spring, on germs and food safety, respectively. Connolly and Biller have nothing but praise for the 22-year-old.
“We’re so impressed and thrilled to be a part of this,” says Biller, assistant dean for Global Health Affairs in the School of Nursing.
Hall still has plenty of work to do during the next eight or so months, including implementing a tool to help the clinic monitor for any outbreaks—whether illness or food-related—before they have a chance to spread too far. Hall says she plans to work with the clinicians there to come up with a feasible, practical system to help reduce infection rates by 20 percent.
All the while, between singing to 3-year-olds about handwashing and putting her nursing skills to use, she’s soaking up every minute of her time in Mexico. “I’m gaining experience with public health and learning how to incorporate public education, but also understanding what will make people actually want to change. Sometimes just telling people, ‘This will prevent you from getting sick’ doesn’t help,” Hall says. “I’m learning more than I ever could have imagined.”
This is the second of a four-part video series highlighting the 2018 President’s Engagement and Innovation Prize winners. Awarded annually, the Prizes provide $100,000 in funding for Penn seniors to design and undertake post-graduation projects that make a positive, lasting difference in the world. Each team member also receives a $50,000 living stipend.
Cynthia Connolly holds the Rosemarie B. Greco Term Endowed Associate Professorship in Advocacy and is an associate professor of nursing in the School of Nursing. She is also associate director of the Barbara Bates Center for the Study of the History of Nursing and the co-faculty director of the Field Center for Children’s Policy, Practice & Research in the School of Social Policy & Practice.
Homepage photo: Hall graduated from the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Nursing in May of 2018. In July, she headed to Mexico to begin her year-long President’s Engagement Prize project. Ultimately, she wants to work in emergency medicine.