Richmond Scholar Kerrissa Richards, ’11, gave up her winter break for a medical mission trip in Africa—a trip that was not only a rewarding experience but that also affirmed her belief that science is service.

Richards, a pre-med student double-majoring in biology and leadership studies, said she wanted to use her Richmond Scholars grant to go somewhere that really needed help.

“For me, I really think of science as more than just a career,” Richards said. “It’s about giving back and service. Now that I’m graduating and thinking about what I want to do, I wanted to do something that was medical. If you think of where these medical needs are, there’s really nowhere more in need than Africa.”

Thanks to a friend’s connection to an American-supported nonprofit organization in northern Ghana, Richards found her destination. But before she left, she had to square things away on campus, as she would miss the first week of classes in January.

Richards met with her professors beforehand to work out the details, then jumped on a plane 12 hours after her last final exam of the fall semester. She spent the next month providing medical outreach to villages and working daily in an orphanage where she helped care for infants and toddlers.

Some of the villages Richards visited did not have electricity or running water, and the telltale signs of malnutrition were everywhere she looked. The majority of children had food to eat, but they weren’t getting the nutrients growing children need.

Sometimes the simplest of solutions—mixing salt and sugar packets from fast food restaurants with water to concoct the equivalent of a saline drip in an IV—would be all someone needed if they suffered from diarrhea.

“The No. 1 cause of death in children where I was was diarrhea,” Richards said. “It’s really sad that something as simple as sugar and salt packets could save the lives of babies in Africa.”

Every day, Richards and a nurse would pack a suitcase with malaria medicine, de-worming medicine, painkillers, vitamins, skin creams and toothpaste. Along with translators, they would go to villages and meet with the sick.

The nurse would take temperatures, blood pressure and ask about fever patterns, then Richards would dispense their medicine or apply creams while a translator would explain instructions for ongoing care.

“It was a little bit scary,” she said, “but it was definitely fulfilling and showing me I was going in the direction I need to go. It confirmed a lot of why I’m doing medicine—being able to help people.

“It makes me excited to actually learn about drug dosages and actual patient care.”

But aside from helping with the medical clinics and taking care of adorable babies in the orphanage, Richards said the most fulfilling part of her trip was teaching a man in his late 20s to read.

Through a connection with the host Richards stayed with in Ghana, she began meeting with the man nearly every day—then he would study into the night. He told her he had prayed that he would meet someone who would teach him how to read. Coincidentally, Richards spent her summer teaching inner-city kids how to read.

They started with the alphabet and by the time Richards left, the man was reading the Bible with her.

“Just the look on his face—I understand now why people teach,” she said. “It’s not quite as dramatic with a child as it is with someone who’s been wanting to read his whole life.”