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Student internship in Kenya leads to children’s book

by Jennifer Johnson,

Sydney Wilson ’22 wrote a children’s book for her senior thesis. Now thousands of her books will be sent to preschools in Kenya to prevent devastating accidents. 

Sydney Wilson
Sydney Wilson ’22

Last summer, the exercise and health science major worked in Mombasa, shadowing medical professionals at Coastal General Teaching and Referral Hospital for a pre-physicians assistant internship. 

The experience inspired “Calm in the Kitchen,” a 28-page tale of a young boy who learns a safety lesson from his favorite stuffed elephant. Soon 3,000 copies of the book, which was written in English and Kiswahili, will be printed and shipped to Mombasa. 

“I have been truly humbled by how the community has come together to help make this project a success,” she said. 

Spending time at Kenya’s second-largest hospital was already an exceptional opportunity for Wilson, a pre-physician assistant student who was awarded the internship through nonprofit International Medical Aid. 

Most of her internship involved shadowing clinicians in various units, including the pediatrics ward. There she saw badly burned children — while some had damage to a hand or arm, others suffered head-to-toe — and when the time came for her to consider a senior thesis, she believed educating children on burn prevention would address the public health problem. 

Elephant from story
Mzee the elephant. Illustrations by Adrienne Scott.

"I didn’t want to create a narrative that would terrify kids, but I also needed a storyline that would effectively convey the importance of the issue,” she said. “Educating children about why it is important to be calm in the kitchen and warning them about the potential for burn injuries could actually target behavioral change.”

Burns are among the leading causes of accidental child injury in Kenya. Overcrowded homes leave little room for playing, and children are often drawn to the bustle of the kitchen, leading to a disproportionate number of scalding injuries among toddlers. Wilson learned 95% of burn fatalities occur in low- to middle-income countries, and in Kenya specifically, children under 5-years-old suffer burns at a rate 3.8 times greater than older children.  

The research helped her develop the plot: A young boy named Zuberi is running around the kitchen and playing with his favorite stuffed elephant, Mzee, when his mother insists that he remain calm. Angered by her reaction, he runs away and encounters Mzee, who transformed into a real elephant. Old and wise, Mzee says he has seen many children get hurt when they aren’t careful, and Zuberi realizes his mother was just trying to protect him. 

Image from book
Zuberi holds Mzee. 

From the initial idea to production, Wilson spent nine months on the project. Through  networking and fundraising, she hired local artist Adrienne Scott, a professional translator and a Salem company for design and printing. A colleague in Mombasa reviewed the book for cultural accuracy and appropriateness. After Wilson completed her thesis with an extensive research review and printed a few beta copies, she presented the book at Student Scholarship Recognition Day

But the story doesn’t end there. Although she will spend the next year as a clinical representative in the Cardiac Rhythm Management division at Boston Scientific in Eugene, she’s already planning to write another book with Scott. 

“My eyes have been opened to how a mere idea can evolve into something tangible to make a real difference,” she said. “More than anything, I hope this project inspires others to take initiative and help others that have touched them.”

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