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Courtesy of Lucy Bergstrom
Villagers from Ouelessebougou, a poor and remote region of Mali, came to Hillcrest High School to express their thanks for the efforts of the school's student government. The students decided to try something different and partnered with the Ouelessebougou Alliance to raise funds to improve health and education in this little-known region.

A little-known region of Mali in northwestern Africa has been receiving help from both a Utah nonprofit group and a high school, and despite the news of violence and upheaval in the country, more help is expected to arrive unimpeded.

The help comes in the form of 8,700 health and education kits assembled by nearly 2,000 LDS missionaries on Thanksgiving Day at the LDS Provo Missionary Training Center. The kits contain everything from toothpaste to calculators and are set to arrive in Bamako, Mali, on Feb. 7 to help one of the poorest regions of the world.

LDS Humanitarian donated all the materials included in the kits, which are part of ongoing efforts by the Utah-based Ouelessebougou Alliance to increase economic, education and health wellness in this impoverished region of West Africa. The alliance was founded in 1985 and has been serving the region of Mali ever since.

Violence has been dominating the news surrounding the country lately, but the shipment of kits is not expected to be affected, said Jen Beckstead, executive director of the Ouelessebougou Alliance. Islamic Relief, which has handled the shipping, has a strong presence in Africa and has experience in shipping throughout the continent, she said. Also, most of the conflicts in the country are taking place in Northern Mali, far from the villages the Ouelessebougou Alliance works with in the south.

"Fortunately the work of Ouelessebougou Alliance has been untouched," Beckstead said. "We feel confident that the work will go forward, especially given the fact that we have local people managing the organization in Ouelessebougou."

The alliance helps the region of Mali in three areas, education, economic development and health care, she said. They treat drinking wells with bleach and distribute mosquito nets to combat malaria. They also have doctors who perform cataract surgeries and more than 1,000 eye exams, Beckstead said.

In terms of education, the goal is to provide stability and autonomy for teachers and programs and ensure gender equality. Schools have been built and teachers have been trained. The goal is to provide resources for the region but then step back and let the people be responsible, she said.

"We want to make sure the villages have qualified teachers so not just anybody is teaching these kids," Beckstead said.

Before the alliance started there were few education programs or opportunities in the region, she said. Now, 15 villages have major education programs. The opportunity for young women has also increased substantially. When the alliance first started, most girls weren't in school. Now, of all the kids going to school, more than 50 percent are girls, Beckstead said.

The kits, filled with seemingly common everyday items, will make a huge difference for the people of the region, she said.

"They have to make their own soap. They truly don't have resources," she said. "A toothbrush will do a lot better than a stick."

Something different

As a thank you for its efforts, Utah's Hillcrest High School received a visit from four Mali natives who danced, ate and interacted with the students who made education more viable for the small village.

The natives, who are also staff members for the Ouelessebougou Alliance, came to Utah for two weeks to participate in an annual dinner auction fundraising event and to attend meetings with board members, staff and donors. Hillcrest High was one of several groups they met with.

They needed a translator and were unfamiliar with American customs, but Lucy Bergstrom will never forget the day that the natives of Ouelessebougou came to her classroom.

Bergstrom, now 19, was a historian for Hillcrest High's student government and was instrumental in changing the lives of these and many other Ouelessebougou natives.

Every year the student government at Hillcrest organized a fundraiser to help those in need. Normally, it would partner with an organization like The Make A Wish Foundation. This year, however, the students wanted something different. They turned their attention to the little-known region of Ouelessebougou, specifically the village of Djemene, and partnered with the Ouelessebougou Alliance. After they raised $13,000, the village had proper vaccinations, and new schools were built.

The students were not able to visit Mali, so the natives, already in town for the fundraiser, came to them. Bergstrom recalls when they came into her classroom to express gratitude and share their experiences.

"I'll never forget that day," Bergstrom said. "It was so great to see them personally thank us for everything we did."

This was a thank-you that was much more interactive and more meaningful for some than a picture or a postcard, said Kami Tressler, SBO for Hillcrest

"They made it really personable for our students," she said. "It was great for them to see that their money was going toward something bigger than themselves."

Hillcrest High School and the Ouelessebougou region of Mali are separated by thousands of miles, but on this day they were closely connected.

"It was a really humbling experience to help people who did not have nearly as much as I did," she said. "It was one of my favorite memories of senior year that will always stick with me."