My Most Valuable Life Experience by Shahrzad Yavari

I always knew that understanding global health just by reading books is not what I wanted out of my passion for public health. I spent so many hours learning from books and looking through pictures but I never experienced what I know today, and at this moment as I am writing this blog. My strong interest in women’s and children’s health was flourished when I was fortunate to intern at Urban Health Resource Centre (UHRC) in Indore, India. Coming from University of California, Los Angeles, I was prepared and excited to see the implementation of public health principles by UHRC. I am going to tell you an overview of both my professional and personal development that I gained by working as an intern in UHRC and living in the beautiful land of India. I hope you are excited to read the rest of the blog and will add lots of colors, images and emotions to your imagination as you are reading what I recognize as the most valuable life experience in my life. So let’s begin!

I arrived in the city of New Delhi at the end of June 2012. All through the 24 hour airplane journey for coming from Los Angeles to New Delhi, it didn’t hit me that I am coming to India, until I walked out of the airport door; there I felt India with all my senses. I felt the warm freeze at 8:30 at night on my face. I heard the welcoming and excited voices of so many people around me who were expecting their loved ones coming through the doors. And there it was, I am in India!

I started my journey with my dear classmate who went through most of these amazing experiences with me. Delhi was a beautiful city and it was the first time that I saw the Rickshaws in the city. Coolest cars I have ever seen. We then made our way to Indore, where we could finally meet the UHRC staff who had been so welcoming through emails from miles and miles away.

We fell in love with Indore right when we landed in the airport. It was so calm and so green. We were welcomed at night with one of the UHRC interns from London who was spending time in Indore for her Ph.D. work. She was so kind and helpful and made us feel at home right away. We also learned so much from her and about her wonderful work with UHRC.

We started our internship after couple of days with the guidance and help of the UHRC staff: Dr. Agarwal, Shabnam, Neeraj and Bhagat. As an intern, my interest was women’s health and I was eager to learn about the great and sustainable work that UHRC is doing to empower, educate and cooperate with women in the slums (bastis) of Indore to improve the wellbeing of the most underprivileged in the city. During the 10 weeks of my internship, I focused on three different projects: collection of data, education workshops, and social media development. I made many trips to the bastis with the UHRC staff through the summer. I still vividly remember the first day I attended a women’s group meeting with Shabnam in the bastis. It was simply so powerful and so inspiring. The women had great ideas about forming adolescent groups in the future and involving the girls at the very young age to be educated and empowered by being involved with UHRC. We were so welcomed by the women and I felt like we fit right in with all the other UHRC staff.

“Our first day participating in the women’s group”

I was able to collect data from most of the participating groups on how involvement in the women’s groups have improved their housing condition, sanitation, neighborhood development and overall wellbeing of their families in overcoming financial challenges in regards to school fees, health costs, repayment of their previous loans, and living costs. I attended educational workshops such as Anna Prashan and Godh Bharai where we used educational posters and pamphlets to educate the women about pregnancy care, immunization, hygiene, infant feeding, and overcoming iron-deficiency anemia through good nutrition. These educational messages were communicated to women through the UHRC staff’s strong teaching skills and by involving the women into planning and implementing the events. The educational events were very successful and women learned very valuable lessons. The best lesson I learned from these events was how public health messages could be communicated and welcomed by the community if they are culturally competent by including the cultural and traditional values into the program. Health education and promotion programs, to be most effective, need to consider the needs and values of the community members, and that is what UHRC does so successfully.

“Anna Prashan”

“Godh Bharai”

I interviewed the women’s groups about their efforts to build a bridge in their basti. The women’s groups were very involved in making a bridge for their community so children do not have to cross unhygienic water during the rainfall season to school. With their dedication and efforts, the women and all the other members of the basti contributed small donations and built a temporary bridge until the government officials accept their request for a permanent bridge. A true story of the women’s resilience, confidence and commitment to improving their community!

I was able to attend training meetings that UHRC held for both women’s and children’s groups. These sessions were so interactive and the groups were involved to express their opinions and practice what they learned through activities. In one of the women’s group training sessions, at the end of the training we made bracelets to give inspiration to the newly joined women’s groups. This eloquent and colorful bracelet was to remind the women of their strength, courage, confidence, hope, and inspiration in the journey of life. Making the bracelets all together, brought the women together by reminding them of their remarkable potentials and motivated them as new members of the women’s group. Every color represented a meaning; red was courage, green was hope, yellow was strength, orange was confidence and blue was inspiration. I have my bracelet next to my desk and whenever I see it I am reminded of the groups’ strength and dedication to make a change in their bastis and I am inspired over and over again.

“Women’s group training”

This internship did not only add to my professional experience, but it contributed to my personal growth as well. I learned several public health lessons from Dr. Agarwal, Shabnam, Neeraj and Bhagat. They all taught me skills that will always help me in my career. I learned about the principles of community-based collective savings and how it builds the capacity of women in the bastis to improve their family economics and their health, nutrition, housing condition and overall social wellbeing. Attending the women’s groups meetings and training sessions taught me how UHRC implements and evaluates its goals and objectives for creating a sustainable social development fund among the participating slums. I developed qualitative research skills by interviewing the women’s groups about their efforts in the community (example: building a bridge). I was then able to write up my results and the progress of women’s efforts in case studies. I used UHRC’s evaluation form, WHO Urban Health Equity Assessment and Response Tool questions, to assess the living conditions in the slums and see how their participation have contributed to their improvement overtime. I collected these new data and added them to the previously collected data and created some graphs to see the trends. I developed strong skills in health education and promotion by creating culturally competent
posters, brochures and curricula to be used in the community educational events. Participation in the planning and delivering of the community events gave me public health program organizing skills. All these important lessons gave me a comprehensive understanding of how capacity building through community-based collective savings can improve both the condition of the slums and the health of those communities in the short and long term.

My internship experience gave me the interpersonal skills by letting me work as an intern (soon to be a public health professional) among a new community and learning how to build that trust and connection in my relationship with the community members that I want to serve. The warmth of the people of India and women and children in the bastis touched my heart in a way that I will never forget them. I loved every single day that I spent there and I felt connected to every single individual that I talked to. My classmate and I, upon our return, kept in touch with UHRC and we will always be part of the UHRC family. I have shared my internship experience and the lessons I learned in many meetings, the UC Global Health Conference, and in many of my classes. I thank the UHRC staff and all the participating women’s and children’s groups for all the love and lessons. I wish UHRC and the women’s and children’s groups lifetime courage, dedication and success for improving the health and conditions of many bastis and for making the world a better and equal place for every individual. Thank you for reading my blog and I hope that you take the courage and effort to spread out the word to your friends and family about the importance of giving back, getting involved with and supporting NGOs like UHRC who are working very hard to improve the lives of the underserved populations in the bastis.

“Never underestimate the ability of a small group of committed individuals to change the world. Indeed, they are the only ones who ever have.” – Margaret Mead

Shahrzad Yavari, MPH

Community Health Sciences Department

University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), 2013
Internship Dates: July 2012-September 2012
Urban Health Resource Centre, Indore, India