Shaila Smith woke up one summer morning in 2014 in a strange bed, 9,000 miles from her home in Utah, ready to help strangers who spoke a completely foreign language: Swahili.
Helping others is something that has always come naturally to Smith, a senior studying public health at BYU. It was because of her charitable nature, combined with her passion for health promotion, that she decided to do humanitarian work in Africa on her own, first in 2014 and again in 2015. These experiences have led to both Smith and her husband creating a goal to assist others internationally, providing less-fortunate people with a better quality of life.
“There are so many preventable health problems in Africa,” Smith said. “The people there are happy, but they’re still missing out on a better quality of living.”
Smith traveled to Kibera, Kenya, in 2014 and lived there for one month. She initially wanted to be involved with HIV and AIDS prevention and education but was assigned to a different project that had her working with a women’s empowerment group. Smith’s group helped Kenyan women develop a profitable business and marketing strategy to allow future prosperity for the women and their families.
Smith explained that building relationships with the women in Kenya made a big impact on her. “We prayed with them, they taught us songs and cooking. We learned from them,” Smith said.
Liam Smith, Shaila Smith’s husband, is a junior studying American studies. He served his mission in Madagascar, so Africa holds a special place in his heart, just as it does for his wife.
Liam Smith said after hearing about his wife’s humanitarian trip to Kenya when they first met, he was excited to get to know her. “That was one of the first things that sparked my interest in her,” he said.
Brad Harris, BYU’s campus executive director for Nonprofit Leadership Alliance, said although only 4 percent of nonprofits work overseas, many BYU students still travel abroad to volunteer their time to those in need. “Students do this all the time; at BYU, that’s a big interest,” Harris said. “Returned missionaries come back and say they want to make a difference in the world.”
Harris provided a few recommendations for students preparing to go overseas for nonprofit service: “Save money, you gotta have time, and you gotta love people. You will be in unique situations.”
This year, Shaila Smith and her husband went to Uganda for six weeks to do additional work. They lived in Kampala but traveled to surrounding villages.
Shaila Smith primarily worked with a charity organization called Assistance to Vulnerable Elderly and Children, or AVEC, while in Uganda. She was mostly involved with young women and taught maturation and hygiene classes.
“We helped the girls out so they could stay in school. We want them to stay in school so they can have better lives and help their country,” she said.
Liam Smith worked with a company called Go Solar Group throughout the six weeks in Africa. Their group focused on making affordable solar lamps for the people of Uganda, who typically rely on kerosene for energy. The solar lamps provide a safer, healthier alternative to kerosene, as well as lasting help and support for Ugandans.
Liam Smith enjoyed working with his wife in the continent they both love. “It was cool to see both of our talents work in different areas,” he said.
Shaila Smith explained she did not experience much culture shock when she saw the bad living conditions in Africa because she had done work in Mexican slums several years ago with her family. “Anything I saw in Uganda and Kenya wasn’t surprising,” she said.
She encouraged anyone who is considering African humanitarian service to participate. “Just do it,” she said, smiling. “Be open to the culture, and live like the people.” She also mentioned that she continues to be in contact with a Ugandan woman she worked with through Facebook and emphasized the value of lasting relationships.
Shaila Smith will graduate in December and said she and her husband will continue working with Go Solar Group in the future, which will give them additional opportunities to go to Africa.
“Whenever we go back, I’d want to do humanitarian work on the side, specifically with malaria and other infectious diseases,” she said.
Shaila Smith added that her husband wants to eventually work in foreign affairs, which would increase their opportunities to travel abroad and participate in humanitarian service, in Africa and other countries. Together they hope to promote health and human rights internationally.