Think before you swim


Photo by Dion Ogust
Photo by Dion Ogust

Many of us head to our favorite swimming holes, those clear stretches of creek water gliding between sylvan woods that we assume are perfectly safe, certainly cleaner than a brick-littered public beach or some semi-stagnant inland pond or lake. But it turns out swimming in the Rondout and Wallkill creeks can be a serious health risk, according to the results of water quality tests for sewage-related bacteria conducted by Riverkeeper and citizen volunteers last summer and fall.

All but two of the 21 sites tested on the Wallkill from May through October had levels of bacteria exceeding U.S. Environmental Protection Agency standards for safe water. Of the 18 sites tested on the Rondout, 61 percent were unacceptable. The Esopus Creek is safer, with only two of its seven sites failing EPA safe water-quality standards.

The volunteers on the Rondout and Wallkill were “uniformly shocked by the results,” said Dan Shapley, membership and events manager at Riverkeeper who organized the citizen science program. “They felt not only sickened but also empowered. They want to see this water cleaned up.”

As part of the environmental organization’s six-year water quality testing program for the Hudson River estuary, the volunteers brought samples monthly for testing to Riverkeeper’s patrol boat. Riverkeeper tested for enterococcus, bacteria associated with untreated human sewage. (While the state Department of Conservation and many municipalities in the state test for E. coli, Riverkeeper tests for the related enterococcus because it is recommended by the EPA and because unlike the test for E. coli it can be done both in fresh and salt water.)

The bacteria cause gastrointestinal infections, resulting in a stomach ache and/or diarrhea. Fever, chills, headache, skin infections and even pneumonia are other illnesses linked to exposure to germs from sewage, which might also be infected with viruses that can cause eye infections, meningitis, encephalitis and liver infections. Young children, the elderly, pregnant women, and people with compromised immune systems are at the highest risk of contracting a chronic illness from sewage-contaminated water. In 2005-06, the federal Centers for Disease Control reported that its survey reported over 4000 documented illnesses from recreational waters in the U.S. Since people may not associate their ailments with exposure to contact with the water, according to Riverkeeper, the number is likely much higher.

In the enterococcus test, which John Lipscomb, patrol boat captain at Riverkeeper, initially developed with the help of two scientists from Queens College and Columbia University, a reagent is added to the water sample, which is placed in an incubator to encourage the growth of microbes. The sample is then exposed to UV light, which illuminates the tiny wells of the sample water if they contain the bacteria. The safe EPA threshold for the bacteria is a count of 61 per 100 milliliters of water. (It’s higher for salt water.)

Change agents

Kingston environmental educator Julie Noble conducts a maple-sugaring workshop at the Forsyth Nature Center. (photo by Phyllis McCabe

For community organizers, tackling childhood obesity and other results of unhealthy habits is a David-and-Goliath kind of a fight. The marketing of junk food to kids is supported by powerful forces. The computer has replaced the playground as the place where millions of kids spend their time, and America’s ubiquitous car culture make the streets unsafe for children who do want to ride their bikes. The problem of overweight kids, which threatens to reverse the long trend in which each generation outlived the one before it, is a national issue that reverberates locally. A quarter of the kids in Ulster County are overweight.

Healthy Kingston for Kids (HKK), a four-year initiative coordinated by Cornell Cooperative Extension (CCE) and funded by a $360,000 grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, has devised a multi-pronged approach that addresses the multiple causes of the problem, from the unsafe streets that prevent kids from walking to school to the cultural disconnect kids have with fresh, locally grown food.

HKK is organized into four committees: Safe Routes to School, Complete Streets, School and Community Gardens, and Healthy After-School Snacks. The effort is enhanced by partnerships with at least a dozen organizations, including the Kingston schools and the city government.

Its achievements three years into the project are modest measured against its ambitious goals. Healthy Kingston for Kids is seeking to creating a framework for healthier living.

The community gardens program has already resulted in tangible improvements to the urban environment. But most of the initiatives are longer-term in scope. Meaningful results have been elusive. Progress has been slow.

“We’ve learned changing overall environmental policy systems to reverse obesity takes a really long time,” said project director Kristin Wilson. “We’re really just getting started. We have gotten some new policies passed at the municipal level and are working on school-district policies. Getting a policy passed doesn’t mean that people will follow it. It’s a slow haul.”

Safety for cyclists

Photo DB Leonard

Kingston biking buffs battle oblivious motorists for a place on the streets


It’s not easy being a bicyclist in Kingston. To hear cyclists tell it, drivers behave as though they were the masters of the universe. They want two-wheelers with whom they are supposed to share the road to get out of their way.

“It’s very difficult biking the city. You need to be an adult, with pretty aggressive and strong biking skills,” said Kristen Wilson, who until becoming pregnant commuted between her home in the Rondout and her office at Kingston Plaza by bike. “The scariest thing is people in cars hollering for you to get on the sidewalk. People drive down Broadway at 40 miles per hour.

Another frustrating thing is that there are so many stop signs, including on some of the side roads, that people don’t respect them. “People run them all the time,” said Wilson. A friend who lives in the Adirondacks was recently visiting, and she said, Everybody is crazy around here. I can tell I’m in the city.”

Michelle Elise, who lives and owns a small business Uptown, said she was riding her bike on Main Street a few years ago when somebody opened their door into her. “It’s called ‘getting doored,’” she said. “He banged me up.” When the police arrived, the driver of the car tried to turn the situation around and make it her fault. The officer corrected him: ‘You can’t open your door in traffic.’

Cyclist Arthur Zaczkiewicz, who also works Uptown, said uneducated drivers were his biggest beef. They turn and cut cyclists off. Zaczkiewicz said once he broke a knuckle after jamming on the brakes and going off the road when a driver turned in front of him.

Seeking to give city bicyclists a voice, Wilson, Elise, and a handful of other cyclists have formed a bike advocacy group called Bike-Friendly Kingston, which started meeting monthly in January. Their goal is to make the streets friendlier for bicyclists by creating bike lanes or shared road space, installing bike racks at strategic locations in the city, and educating both bicyclists and motorists about the rules of the road. (Tom Polk, another member of the group who bikes to his office in Midtown from his home in the Town of Ulster, said some bicyclists in the city also break the rules, riding without helmets, weaving in and out of traffic, and riding against the traffic or on the sidewalk.)

The group has been researching ways to make the streets friendlier to the pedaling set. It has concluded that “sharrow” markings, a term for painted road signs that designate a roadway as shared by both bicyclists and drivers, are far less costly than building dedicated bike lanes. (Many cities, including San Francisco, Baltimore and Paris, have adopted them.) The group found that the cost of creating a sharrow — carefully placed signs that incorporate a symbol for a bicycle and are painted on the right-hand lane of a roadway, well away from the reach of a door of a parked car — is $250 (for labor and materials) versus $5000 or more for a mile-long bike lane.

The group plans to submit a proposal to Kingston’s Common Council for the creation of sharrows along two intersecting routes, Lucas and Washington avenues, a project that would entail the painting of 19 sharrow markings at a cost of $4750. The sharrows would be placed about 250 feet apart. Bike-Friendly Kingston is currently collecting signatures to build up support for the proposal.

Network of pathways

Working with the city of Kingston’s Conservation Advisory Council, the group has compiled a map showing several bike-friendly pathways. The routes have been devised to connect with popular destinations, such as Kingston Point Park, Forsyth Nature Center, and the Kingston farmers’ market, as well as with links such as two rail-trails. Member Kevin Young has printed out a Google map showing the inventory of bike racks in Uptown and Midtown. The map also identifies places currently lacking racks that Bike-Friendly Kingston thinks should have them, including Bailey Middle School, the Kingston Plaza Hannaford and Cornell Park.

Steve Noble, an environmental educator involved with the group, said Bike-Friendly Kingston has applied for funding for bike racks from an organization called Bikes Belong. Approximately $10,000 in grant money would pay for the equivalent of five to ten bike parking spots in each of eleven parks.

Polk is chair of the city’s Complete Streets Advisory Council, which is working on improving the design, signage and infrastructure of city streets and sidewalks to make them more pedestrian- and bike-friendly. Besides advocating for the creation of sharrows or bike lanes, the council would like city notification whenever there is upcoming redevelopment or repair of a street, bridge or intersection. Such projects could then be made friendlier to cyclists, Polk said.

Polk is also chair of the bicycling committee of the YMCA of Kingston and Ulster County, which is sponsoring its third annual “Bike to Work Breakfast Energizer” on Friday, May 18. Registration is at the YMCA, 507 Broadway, between 7 and 9 a.m., with free coffee, bagels, juice and fruit. A raffle for bike-commuting prizes will be held. The event celebrating National Bike Month has been timed to coincide with a “casual Friday.”

Pedal potential

Polk and Wilson both support a current study for improving the intersection of Albany Avenue, Broadway and Colonel Chandler Drive. Project consultants Fitzgerald & Halliday have suggested replacing the current intersection with a roundabout, which Wilson said would serve to move traffic through the intersection more quickly (plus accommodate an expected increase in traffic in the future) besides improving safety for bicyclists and pedestrians. The project “also has some design elements that would make the intersection a gateway to the city,” said Wilson, noting that the roundabout would be nothing like the roundabout at the other end of I-587.

While residents, perhaps haunted by the trauma of the Thruway traffic circle, have expressed misgivings about the roundabout plan, Wilson said she was sold on the idea when she visited North Carolina and walked through a whole bunch of roundabouts by the same designer. “It was just amazing,” she said.

As it is now, the crossing is extremely difficult for bicyclists and pedestrians to navigate. “Just last week I was trying to get across,” Wilson said. “I got halfway through the crosswalk before the light turned and I had to go back. You have to be very cautious as a pedestrian.”

Bike-Friendly Kingston members said that Kingston could be a great biking city. “There’s a lot of flat ground in Uptown and Midtown that enables you to get around without working too hard,” said Polk, whose two-mile daily commute by bike takes approximately 20 minutes.

“Kingston has an amazing potential to be a very bikable city,” Elise concurred. ‘It’s pretty concentrated. People live, work and recreate here. In Midtown, there’s not a big grade difference. It’s easy to get to the rail-trails. We want to focus on bikes as an everyday form of transportation.”

Fracking: At our peril

Hydraulic fracturing, which involves injecting millions of gallons of chemical-laden water at high pressure into a well drilled both vertically and horizontally into a rock formation deep within the earth to extract natural gas, is rapidly spreading. There are approximately 500,000 natural gas wells in 34 states, and the industry projects that 19,000 new wells will be drilled this year. Fracking is one of the significant recent technologies through which this nation hopes to attain energy independence.

There are real problems, however. Fumes from drilling rigs and wastewater pits in Colorado and Pennsylvania have caused a variety of alarming symptoms in residents, forcing them from their homes. Spilled drilling fluid containing antifreeze has killed pets and livestock. After fracking has occurred, drinking-water wells have been tainted with barium, arsenic and other toxins. Leakages from large pits, resulting in dangerous chemicals becoming airborne, have poisoned homeowners. Soil at a wastewater impoundment that blew up and burned in Avella, Pennsylvania was found to have dangerously high levels of arsenic and tetrachloroethene, a carcinogen and central-nervous-system suppressor.

Because its end product is a relatively clean fossil fuel, fracking has been touted by industry and government as helping the U.S. achieve energy independence while combating climate change. However, the process itself is so energy-consumptive that some scientists believe it produces more greenhouse gases than the burning of coal.

New York State is one of two states — the other is New Jersey — that has imposed a temporary ban on fracking. The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) is in the processing of completing its review of a supplemental environmental impact statement. When it is approved, governor Andrew Cuomo is expected to lift the moratorium.

The DEC must first address the more than 66,000 comments submitted last year in response to the second version of its environmental impact statement and proposed regulations, which DEC commissioner Joe Martens characterized as “a very long and tedious process” at an Albany conference two weeks ago. He said he hoped to complete the process by summer.

An industry publication reported that Martens recently met with Norwegian company Norsk Energy, which has leased 180,000 acres in New York and is particularly keen on Utica Shale, a rock formation underlying the Marcellus that extends into Ulster County. The company, which began applying for drilling permits last summer, was “encouraged by the meeting.” It noted that the commissioner had appeared to backtrack from previous comments that New York would wait until the EPA completes its study of hydraulic fracturing before moving ahead.

Numerous health professionals and environmental groups who found the environmental impact statement’s assessment of fracking’s health risks lacking had requested an independent study. But the New York State Assembly’s proposal for a $100,000 study of fracking’s adverse health impacts was dropped during last month’s budget negotiations.

Fracking injects hundreds of toxic chemicals into the ground, disposes of thousands or millions of gallons of chemical-laden wastewater per well (which may be further contaminated by radionuclides, or radioactive particles, and other harmful substances from deep within the earth), disposes of the even more toxic “brine” fluid that comes up with the gas once the well is in production, and burns up large quantities of diesel fuel.

Fracking was exempted from the oversight of federal environmental laws, such as the Clean Water Act and Safe Drinking Water Act, as a result of the so-called “Halliburton loophole” in the Energy Policy Act of 2005. Government support for the unfounded assertion that hydrofracking was safe has had the effect of shifting the burden of proof of a health impact onto the citizen.

Though the companies, citing proprietary privilege, didn’t reveal the types of chemicals they use, a couple of states now require more disclosure. The industry is failing to comply fully. In Wyoming, for example, Halliburton and other companies have gotten 50 “secrecy” exemptions from the regulatory agency.

Opponents of fracking have charged that the states and local governments have lacked the political will and don’t have the resources to protect public health. Because the companies haven’t revealed the chemicals they use, it’s difficult for citizens, health professionals and municipalities to assess the health risks from drilling.

Residents at risk

In 2004, the EPA released a study claiming that hydrofracking was safe. According to ProPublica, however, information buried in the study did note problems. The EPA identified some of the chemicals as biocides and lubricants that “can cause kidney, liver, heart, blood, and brain damage through prolonged or repeated exposure” and “found that as much as a third of injected fluids, benzene in particular, remains in the ground after drilling and is likely to be transported by groundwater,” reported ProPublica.

According to another ProPublica article, in 2010 the University of Colorado-Denver School of Public Health did a study in Garfield County that concluded benzene and ozone-forming emissions from drilling was carcinogenic, putting residents at risk for respiratory and neurological ailments as well as for birth defects. The analysis found volatile organic chemicals five times above the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s Hazard Index level of acceptable amounts. The school recommended long-term monitoring for a cluster of wells to be drilled in a new area. Instead, the Garfield County board of commissioners ended the researchers’ contract.

Other efforts to track cases and assess the health impacts from fracking have been thwarted. For example, Pennsylvania had planned to budget $2 million this year to create a statewide registry to track respiratory problems, skin ailments, and other illnesses related to gas drilling — data that’s desperately needed to assess and measure the dangers and protect citizens. The funds were withdrawn. Legislators also recently passed a law requiring doctors to sign a confidentiality agreement in return for access to information on chemicals used in fracking that had affected their patients, which prevents valuable information that could protect the public from being disseminated.

However, with thousands of cases of contamination of drinking wells from fracking fluids reported in the past four years, along with alarming increases in air pollution in heavily fracked areas, government can ignore the threat only at its peril. The EPA is currently conducting a review of the health impacts from fracking. The agency has just issued its first rule, a requirement that drilling companies capture the methane gas, a potent greenhouse gas, that’s released when a well is first drilled, and transfer it to pipes for use as fuel. The companies, however, don’t have to comply until 2015. Legislation introduced in Congress to restore EPA oversight and override the 2005 law has failed to pass.


The EPA has confirmed that hydrofracking was the cause of the contamination of drinking-water wells with arsenic and other toxic chemicals in Pennsylvania and Wyoming. Even the Pennsylvania Department of Protection, a sorry excuse for environmental regulation, had to admit after a university study of toxic metals that fracking wastewater trucked to municipal wastewater treatment plants on the Monongahela River was poisoning the drinking water of the people in Pittsburgh. That department asked the fracking companies to stop using sewage plants to treat their waste. But here in New York the DEC’s proposed regulations would allow disposal of fracking waste, which it termed nonhazardous, in municipal sewage treatment plants.

Independent sources have been compiling data on some of the chemicals and products used by the fracking industry, of which the most comprehensive is The Endocrine Disruption Exchange (TEDX). TEDX has compiled an as yet incomplete list of nearly 1000 products and has evaluated the health impact of each chemical. The findings include the following:

Over 78 percent of the chemicals are associated with skin, eye or sensory organ effects, respiratory effects and gastrointestinal or liver effects. The brain and nervous system can be harmed by 55 percent of the chemicals. Usually appearing right after exposure, the symptoms include burning eyes, rashes, coughs, sore throats, asthma-like effects, nausea, vomiting, headaches, dizziness, tremors, and convulsions. Other effects, including cancer, organ damage, and harm to the endocrine system, may not appear for months or years later.

A total of 210 chemicals (58 percent) are water-soluble while 131 (36 percent) are volatile, meaning they can become airborne. Of these volatile chemicals, over 93 percent can harm the eyes, skin, sensory organs, respiratory tract, gastrointestinal tract or liver. Compared with the soluble chemicals, far more of these chemicals (86 percent) can cause harm to the brain and nervous system.

Seventy-two percent of the volatile chemicals can harm the cardiovascular system and blood, and 66 percent can harm the kidneys. Because they can be inhaled, swallowed, and also reach the skin, the potential for exposure to volatile chemicals is greater than exposure to those that are soluble in water.

Many of these chemicals, particularly those that affect the immune systems and reproductive development, are harmful to humans in extremely low doses. The industry argues that the chemical composition of the fluids are too diluted to be dangerous. But some 80 to 330 tons of chemicals are required for each well, according to estimates published on the non-profit organization Earthworks.

When the gas surfaces, produced water, called brine, comes up with it, in a process that continues through the 20- or 30-year life of the well. The brine, which contains a more potent brew of chemicals, is hauled away to evaporation pits. Some municipalities in New York State are using brine from vertically drilled wells, which contain the same harmful substances, as road deicers and dust suppressors on county fairgrounds. (The Ulster County Legislature, which has banned fracking on county property, this month introduced a resolution for a law prohibiting such of the brine on county roads and property.) The DEC doesn’t consider the wastewater and brine to be hazardous waste.
Another concern is depletion of water resources. According to EPA figures, 70 to 140 billion gallons of water are required to frack 35,000 new wells — equal to the annual water consumption of dozens of cities with a population of 50,000. Fracking contaminates fresh water, in some cases withdrawn from municipal drinking sources (such as the Susquehanna River), with chemical waste.

Air pollution is yet another concern. Tons of toxic chemicals, including benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and methane volatize into the air and mix with nitrogen oxides from the exhaust of diesel-driven equipment and trucks which make thousands of trips per well result in ground-level smog which can spread to a distance of 200 miles, notes TEDX, Fumes from 27,000 wells in formerly pristine areas of Wyoming have caused the state to fail federal standards for air quality for the first time in history in 2009; the levels of smog exceed at times those in Los Angeles.

Pennsylvania to Ithaca

Tom Shelley, a retired chemical safety specialist who formerly worked at Cornell University and New York State, claims air pollution from fracking operations in central Pennsylvania is wafting over his home town of Ithaca. Monitors in the air have identified hydrocarbons and elevated levels of methane, he said.

Shelley said that the rate of asthma among children who live near drilling rigs is six to nine times higher than normal. He fears low-level impacts on fracking chemicals and pollution, experienced over a long period of time, might result in a bigger health impact than a more pronounced one-time exposure — meaning the effects may not show up for years.

Paul Rubin, an outspoken hydrologist based in Ulster County who does consulting work on fracking’s impact for environmental and citizen groups, said the chemicals from drilling could eventually infiltrate the groundwater supplying drinking water to urban populations. “The bottom line is that the cement and steel sealant in the well casing, no matter how thick, will fail. Once the chemicals have entered the groundwater, the chemicals will migrate to the river valleys, where most of the population lives. It may take a long time to get into our valleys, but at the end of the day when you have thousands of wells you end up with contaminated loads. We need to protect our aquifers.”

Rubin said he’s been advocating for tracers in the drilling fluids, which would enable people to track contaminants back to a particular well and operator, establishing the link between the drilling operations and their harmful effects.
Shelley said he was optimistic that fracking won’t make much headway in New York, thanks to a battle being fought at the grass-roots level. “Right now there are almost 100 towns in New York that have passed land-use laws banning industrial activities like hydrofracking,” he noted. “Such a spotty pattern of land use allowed for hydrofracking won’t be profitable. It’s at the town level one can ban industrial uses through zoning. So far, the cases have held up in court.”

Focus on what you have

[wide][/wide]As a student in high school at Onteora several years ago, Nicole Chartrand participated in several sports and took classes in anatomy and physiology, English, history, and health.

She also spent part of each day at Kingston and Benedictine hospitals touring the facilities and becoming well versed in American standards of health care. She witnessed both a live birth and an autopsy.

Shadowing Dr. Richard McNally, medical director of pathology, convinced her she wanted to work with patients rather than in the lab, and it prepared her for her participation in the rigorous New Visions program the following year. In that program, she helped out at local health-care agencies.

This background turned out to be excellent preparation for the four months she spent in Rwanda last year as a junior at Houghton College. The basic standards Chartrand had become used to were lacking in Rwanda, particularly in the impoverished countryside, where she spent a month and a half at a health-care clinic in a small village.

“Wow, these people do not have the resources we have in the States,” she said. “It was hard knowing that while you could possibly save a life in the States, in Rwanda these people were going to die.”

Chartrand, one of 20 students in Rwanda in the highly competitive Go Ed semester-study-abroad program and one of three focused on health care, spent two and a half months taking classes in the capital of Kigali. While the hospitals in Kigali lacked equipment such as machines for CAT scans or MRIs, they were relatively sophisticated compared to the facilities in the clinic in the village of Rwamagana, about an hour’s drive north, where Chartrand was based for the remainder of her time.

The standard of health care in the countryside was abysmally low, with people relying on traditional medicine in many cases based on superstition. For example, practitioners won’t touch somebody having a seizure because they believe the person is possessed by devils, she said. “They wouldn’t let me go near them, either, so I couldn’t treat them. You have to respect the cultural differences.”

Lack of medicine for malaria resulted in many deaths, she said.

People were vulnerable to illness because they didn’t practice basic sanitation, Chartrand’s group discovered when they conducted a survey of conditions in a small village in the north of the country. The survey revealed that people had to walk a great distance to get water — sometimes as long as ten hours — which they then transported in large cans. Though the water might be contaminated with pathogens, nobody boiled it before drinking. (The community health-care workers Chartrand accompanied tried to educate the villagers about such basic practices, distributing picture books showing people boiling water, washing hands, and performing other health-protecting tasks.)

In the Rwamagana clinic, Chartrand assisted in the “little surgery” (as the French term translates). Some of her patients were soldiers getting circumcisions to reduce the risk of AIDS. Others were people receiving treatment for old wounds suffered during the genocide, such as festering machete wounds.

A group of children was once brought in who had been injured from an unexploded grenade they had discovered that had gone off. “They came in gaping in shock,” Chartrand recalled. “It was really sad. I treated four of them, and they were all saved. When the child who was only four years old started to cry, we said, we’re good. When they don’t cry, it’s a bad sign.”

The great distance people have to walk to the hospital to get care was another challenge. “Africans are very reserved,” she said, “They don’t complain about things, and you know if they’re coming to the hospital something is very wrong.”


A heart for people

Chartrand was able to communicate with some Rwandans in French, a language spoken only by those who attended school — which many people can’t afford. She picked up some words in Kinyarwanda, despite its status as the world’s fifth most difficult language. Residing in a nursing school near the clinic, she became friends with the students in the school. One was a young woman who after suffering from debilitating symptoms was moved to the capital and a few weeks after died.

Chartrand said the disease from which she was suffering was never identified, but was probably cancer. “She was only 21, and when her disease began, they didn’t have the tests to diagnose it or the chemotherapy to treat it,” she said. “It was a very hard experience.”

Chartrand returned to the U.S. in May, and later in the year transferred to SUNY-New Paltz, where she is now a senior majoring in molecular and cellular biology. After graduating this December, she plans to apply to medical school. In the meantime she expects to work as an emergency medical technician, having obtained her EMT certification through BOCES last summer.

Chartrand described her experience in Rwanda as invaluable. “It’s given me a heart for people,” she said. “I definitely want to go back, whether it’s Rwanda or some other place hurting for health-care practitioners.” She’s committed to community-based health care, whether abroad or in this country.

“I learned that people will trust you more if you have a relationship with them,” she said. “That’s just as important as what you are doing for them medically.”

Living in Africa also was valuable in testing her values, she added. “Going outside your comfort zone really teaches you what you believe in and why — doing something that’s right, rather than because it’s something everyone else does in your culture.”

She took away many lessons from the Rwandans. “Amidst all the poverty and pain, there’s still so much joy,” she said. “It’s an inexplicable joy, which we don’t see here in the States. We have access to anything we want, yet still we’re so unhappy.”

Learning to appreciate the little things was a big thing she learned. “I’m so appreciative of going to college and being able to afford it,” she said. “It’s such a luxury. Or walking or living in a place where I don’t have to be scared my house is going to get bombed. Even though they [The Rwandans] have so little, they focus on what they have, not on what they don’t have.”