If Kelly van Bronkhorst can get 12 new toilets installed in her school within the next 12 months, she’ll really feel like she’s done her job.
The catch is that van Bronkhorst’s town, Ţînţăreni, is in rural Moldova where she’s currently serving as a Peace Corps volunteer and the toilet itself won’t use technologies like running water that we’re used to in the West.
But it’s not as simple as it sounds. Van Bronkhorst is hoping to install “Ecosan” toilets. Ecosan is a more sophisticated eco-friendly version of a traditional Moldovan latrine, and getting the necessary materials to her tiny village will be a challenge. The biggest challenge, however, is changing people’s minds about the importance of public health and sanitation.
But she’s up to the challenge. Van Bronkhorst earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in anthropology from Oregon State and has been a global thinker her whole life. Her parents immigrated to Oregon from the Netherlands when she was nine years old, and she began researching the Peace Corps when she was only in junior high.
To participate, you need at least a bachelor’s degree, and van Bronkhorst said her college experience prepared her well.
“The tools I gained from going to Oregon State helped make the transition into the Peace Corps so much easier.”
INVESTIGATING HEALTH LITERACY
For her master’s thesis, van Bronkhorst studied the level of health literacy in patients suffering from end stage renal disease, or kidney failure.
She tested patients’ knowledge of their health issues and spoke to the patients as well as their doctors to determine their overall level of health literacy.
And she took those skills to Moldova, where she’s tested members of her community there on a variety of health and public health topics.
“I gave 15 of the faculty members at the school a 46-question test about personal hygiene and correct sanitary practices in the kitchen.”
The average score?
Van Bronkhorst also discovered that, due to the conditions of the community toilet at the school where she teaches health, 40 percent of students use the bathroom at school only once a week.
They avoid drinking water and eating at school to avoid the toilet, she said. And every teacher surveyed at the school admitted that the toilet is in bad condition.
“In the U.S., I never thought of the toilet as a major issue,” van Bronkhorst said. “They’re always there. I never had to worry about it; sometimes if it was a little dirty, I would complain about it.”
Most Moldovans use outhouses that lack running water, a practice that raises health concerns. By using a redesigned outhouse, Moldovans could both save water and protect human health, adds van Brockhorst. Water is a precious commodity in rural Moldova, which does not have centralized water systems.
THE NEXT STEP FOR RURAL MOLDOVA
Van Bronkhorst is exploring grant possibilities to bring the Ecosan toilets to her village.
“My masters program at Oregon State taught me more about grant writing than the three-day crash course the Peace Corps gave me,” she admitted. “Hopefully people will donate toward the project to make it a reality. It’s desperately needed.”
Van Bronkhorst’s Modovan teaching partner agreed.
“This is a need,” Adela Ambrosii said. “It’s not just a problem in our village. It’s a problem throughout Moldova.”
Ambrosii said she is excited about the possibility of an Ecosan toilet.
“I think it is a sustainable solution,” she said.
The Ecosan toilets will benefit not only the students and teachers in the school, but rural, subsistence farmers in Ţînţăreni as well. Once implemented and utilized, the toilets create a fertilizer, which will be available to local farmers.
Sustainability is important to van Bronkhorst. She doesn’t simply want to complete a Peace Corps project and then move on. She wants to create lasting change, a change that will be maintained by the community for years to come.
Through the processes, van Bronkhorst is making life-long relationships with the community of Ţînţăreni.
“I like the stories Kelly tells about studying at Oregon State,” Ambrosii said. “The anthropology department there seems very advanced, and Kelly offers up a lot of her great research to help us here.”
MEANWHILE, BACK HOME AT OSU
Sunil Khanna, a professor at Oregon State (he also served as associate provost for international programs until this August) was van Bronkhorst’s thesis adviser. He said he isn’t at all surprised that she is creating change in Moldova.
“She came to Oregon State with a global perspective already and worked hard in the master’s program in Applied Anthropology,” Khanna said. OSU students learn about global diversity and develop a global perspective through their course work, he added.
“A broad understanding of global diversity is built into the very fabric of Oregon State University,” Khanna said. “It is central to our mission as a land grant university. We think of things locally, regionally, nationally and globally.”
Anthropology students are especially equipped to deal with foreign cultures. In their curriculum at Oregon State, they learn to communicate across cultures and answer questions about how cultures influence individuals.
Khanna notes that other Oregon State alumni have served in the Peace Corps, and last year alone, International Programs sent close to 470 students abroad.
An experience abroad can be life changing. Van Bronkhorst’s time as a Peace Corps volunteer has inspired her to study to become a nurse practitioner after her service is complete.
“Students like Kelly who get an Oregon State degree truly make great global citizens and global leaders,” Khanna said. “Their experience at Oregon State University has helped them put their talents to use locally and worldwide.”