Lizzie Edwards of Edgartown volunteers in Kenya

Lizzie Edwards of Edgartown volunteers in Kenya

While other 24-year-olds might worry about where to meet their friends on a Saturday night, or how they’ll make their car payments, Lizzie Edwards of Edgartown broods about how to help the people of Oyugis, Kenya, understand AIDS prevention, birth control, malaria, nutrition, environmental issues, and economic development.

A year ago, Ms. Edwards, then 23, was sworn into the Peace Corps as a volunteer and dispatched to western Kenya near Lake Victoria, where she will serve an additional year affiliated with a local community development organization.

Back in the States for a two-week vacation this summer, Ms. Edwards enthusiastically reacquainted herself with luxuries like running water, a fully stocked refrigerator, and her family’s spacious house. With one year down and another to go, she has seen a part of the world and a culture she could never have imagined growing up on the Vineyard, graduating from high school here in 2004.

Majoring in Spanish and International Affairs at Skidmore College in upstate New York, Ms. Edwards finished her studies in 2008 and decided to volunteer abroad. “I’d become interested in other cultures and in the Peace Corps when I was in high school,” she explained, “and I’ve always liked helping people.” She studied in Argentina for a year in college, further deepening her ambitions to travel and work in a foreign country. She quickly discovered, however, that joining the Peace Corps was no simple task.

“It’s become much more competitive in this tough job market,” Ms. Edwards says. “They really want to be sure you’re the right person — that you’re sincere about wanting to help and that your skills match the placement they need.”

Now fluent in the Peace Corps vernacular, Ms. Edwards speaks with eagerness and ease about her efforts in Kenya. She tosses out terms like “microfinance,” “market development,” and “economic empowerment,” all the while describing a region that has the highest HIV rate in the country, a place where 21 percent of the children are orphans.

She and her team of five local community development specialists work closely with men, women, and children, helping them to achieve economic survival through the production of drought-resistant crops or items they can trade, as well as educating them about critical health issues.

The women they serve range in age from 20 to 70 and most are either widows or women caring for vulnerable children. Ms. Edwards also helps a group of beekeepers produce honey and will soon add beeswax candles to their “product line.” She coaxes young girls to stay in school and avoid pregnancy. She has even developed a book on home-based health care to educate the Kenyans about AIDS symptoms, first aid, rabies, family planning, and basic nutrition.

Ironically, it was Ms. Edwards’s eight-year stint at Beadniks in Vineyard Haven, a retail store that sells beads from all over the world and teaches people how to craft them into jewelry, that yielded an important skill she could pass on to the Kenyans. She works closely with a group of women who now make beaded jewelry from recycled magazines.

“It’s the most rewarding part of my job,” she says. “I love working with the women making beads and bags from African fabrics. My years at Beadniks taught me how to craft really attractive jewelry so I can help these women to develop products that will sell. It makes me feel wonderful when I see how happy they are to receive income from their work.”

Ms. Edwards is so supportive of their efforts that she brought a large array of their handcrafted products home with her this summer. She canvassed a number of Vineyard shop owners to see if they might want to carry these unique items: Wallets, purses, and shoulder totes from the African fabrics; colorful beaded necklaces, bracelets, and earrings made from the recycled magazines. A sampling of the items can be found in the gift shop at the new Martha’s Vineyard Hospital, at Beadniks, and at Tommye Brown’s hair salon in Oak Bluffs.

Now beginning her second and last year of service, Ms. Edwards says she feels the impact the experience has had on her life. “It’s gone by fast and I’ve grown to appreciate Kenya’s culture of mothers,” she says. “They take you under their wing and take care of you. It’s also made me realize the importance of sustainable projects. Giving money isn’t always the best policy.”

Ms. Edwards’s work in public health has inspired her to consider pursuing a career in nursing or health education. But when she was home earlier this summer, she was happy to enjoy a week at the beach with old friends and family — just like so many other 24-year-olds on the Vineyard.

For more information about how you can help Lizzie Edwards’s Peace Corps community development efforts in Kenya, contact her by email at: lizzie.nyachula.edwards@gmail.com.

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