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Reaching Out to Rwanda, A Humanitarian Journey
Wednesday, March 20, 2013 • Posted March 20, 2013

When I first met Tonya Huston in late 2009 she was just getting ready for a trip to Rwanda to assist with a project called True Vineyard Ministries. She had learned how to shear sheep in Ballinger and was ready to transfer what she knew to a very eager group of men and women in Rwanda who were raising sheep, shearing them and then spinning the wool into yarn for sale. Tonya was also going to learn about the bakery that this group of women had established. The purpose of the sheep raising, wool production and bakery were to give the women, survivors of the horrors of genocide, the opportunity to become self-sufficient and fortify their human dignity. It was a way to help people up!

It was during this trip that Tonya became aware of the many people suffering from severe and debilitating Podoconiosis, more commonly known as Elephantiasis, a serious malfunction of the lymphatic system that leads to lower extremity swelling. In addition to the reduction in quality of life, many of the sufferers of Podoconiosis live as marginalized beggars and are often outcast by a society that doesn’t understand the condition and fears it is contagious. The reality is that it is not contagious, it is manageable and, in many cases, it can be reversible, as it is caused by an inflammatory response from prolonged contact with the silica-rich volcanic soils of the area. As Tonya is a physical therapist with a specialty in lymphedema management and a person who enjoys helping others, she decided then that she would do something to help these people and, like the widows from True Vineyard Ministries, regain their health, independence and ability to be involved, active members of society and to live dignified lives.

To that end, she is on her forth humanitarian trip to Rwanda and is operating as the not-for-profit organization called the Imidido Project. Imidido means swelling in the Rwandan native tongue of Kinyarwandan. She has been joined on her current trip by two other volunteers, Shari Bowen, an occupational therapist and certified lymphedema therapist from Mississippi and Tiffany Danse, an occupational therapist from Maine. Since their arrival in Rwanda on January 27th they have been treating 55-60 people per week. One patient even walked for 7 hours to seek treatment! With feet in poor condition this was a huge accomplishment and underscored how desperate these people are to get better.

Treatments involve soaking the feet and lower legs in chlorine water and then further cleaning through light debridement. Legs and feet are scanned for open wounds and signs of infection, which are given special care. Light lymphatic massage is applied as are various lotions. Finally compression bandages or stockings are used to move the trapped lymphatic fluids.

In addition to the primary treatments, the patients and community are being educated about Podoconiosis, its causes and progression and most importantly, prevention. As with the treatments, prevention also comes at a price, as wearing shoes is the most effective prevention method. To aid in prevention inexpensive shoes are being bought locally and distributed on an as-needed basis. A pair of shoes costs less than $2.00, but that is a huge amount of money when the average daily income is about $3.00. Another development during this trip is that the patients will receive aloe vera plant cuttings to grow in their home gardens, giving access to an inexpensive salve. Finally, each patient is being provided with a personal soaking basin that costs about $4.00.

Tonya continues to look for other philanthropic partners as well as support from the medical and scientific communities. With creative partnering, sufficient funding, education and a lot of hard work, this condition will be resolved.

Tonya, Shari and Tiffany will be continuing their efforts through April 2nd. Anyone wishing to donate may do so by dropping by the Mason Bank and asking to place a deposit in the Imidido Project Account. All monetary assistance is greatly appreciated and will go toward medical supplies and shoes.

For more information, to see project images, to book a speaking engagement or to send a message to Tonya, please visit the Project website at Tonya, an Ohio native who has lived in Texas for over 30 years, has been a resident of Mason for the past three years. She hopes to be able to spend more time in Rwanda in the future helping her new friends lead better lives.

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