Saving lives one net at a time

12-year-old starts nonprofit to help fight malaria in Senegal

Alessandro Lauria helps load mosquito nets in Mboro.
Photo courtesy of Kristine Lauria

In a small African village off the coast of Senegal, where medical care and supplies are scarce and disease and infection abundant, death is an all-too-familiar event.

Unless you happen to be an American seventh grader who traveled there with your mother, a midwife.

“The one day I go to the clinic with my mom, I was just visiting her and there was a baby that came into the clinic and it was really, really pale, and it had an infection in its lungs and my mom had to do CPR on it, but eventually, after about a half hour … the baby died. It was really sad,” says seventh grader Alessandro Lauria. “I was standing right there. She was only 3 days old.”

Alessandro missed classes at his Nederland middle school for a month in November to take his third trip to Mboro, Senegal, with his mother, Kristine Lauria, who works at the village’s medical clinic as a midwife. But the education he brought home after volunteering, taking classes and making friends is one he says he’ll remember for a lifetime.

What he learned started before they even left home, when he decided he wanted to do something to help the people in Africa, and settled on the project of distributing mosquito nets treated with insecticide as part of the Malaria Defense Project: Nets in Action.

“I realized by the time he was 3 that he was becoming more aware of the world around him,” Lauria says of her son. “I didn’t want him growing up thinking how we live in the U.S. was all there is to the world. So when he was 4, we moved to Ghana for a year, where I volunteered on a maternal/ infant health project. … I want him to know the world, see the world and how it is, not how it is portrayed in movies or even books.”

While in Ghana, Alessandro contracted malaria, and he describes having horrible headaches and hallucinations. Lauria says she and Alessandro slept under mosquito nets and used a mosquito spray if they were out at night, but those preventive steps are not 100 percent effective. She decided against using medication to avoid the two of them being on antibiotics for that long.

Malaria is responsible for the deaths of more than 655,000 people worldwide each year, with 91 percent of those cases occurring in Africa. The sickness is transmitted by a type of female mosquito called Anapheles, which is most active between the hours of 10 p.m. and 4 a.m, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. One of the most effective methods to protect against mosquitos during these hours is by placing mosquito nets treated with insecticide above and around a bed.

Since he experienced the effects of malaria himself, and had seen others who were just as miserable as he was, Alessandro says, he was motivated to “make as big a difference as possible” in preventing malaria in Mboro, a village of 10,000.

“I saw lots of people there with malaria, including a baby that had a seizure because of malaria. There was one baby I saw that had a temperature over 105,” Alessandro says.

Pregnant women and children under 5 are most affected by malaria and are the most vulnerable, according to the CDC, which is why Alessandro decided to distribute the nets to them first.

Alessandro and his mother took a seven-hour cab ride to Dakar to purchase as many mosquito nets as he could afford with the money raised for the trip — a total of 481 nets.

“The day after I got the nets, we loaded some of them onto a donkey cart and then took them to the clinic by the beach,” Alessandro says. “All the women in the town lined up for the nets and came up one by one, and I handed out nets. I handed out about 150 nets in an hour’s time.”

By the end of the next day, Alessandro had handed out the rest of the nets, then was swarmed by pregnant women and women with young children who were still in need of a net.

“It was pretty hard. They didn’t look very happy,” Alessandro says. “A lot of them didn’t understand what I was trying to say, so there was just this mob of women encircling me, and I’m like ‘I’m sorry, I don’t have any more.’”

A friend served as a translator and explained to the people that there were not any nets left.

“It was difficult and I was disappointed, but it made me more determined to expand my project so that I can distribute even more nets next year,” Alessandro says.

With the net distribution completed, Alessandro had time to get to know the culture and the people of Mboro while his mother worked at the medical clinic.

Before arriving in Senegal, she contacted the headmaster of the school in Mboro to request space in class for Alessandro for the month they would be in Senegal. The school proved to be an especially challenging experience for Alessandro. Classes were taught partly in the native language, Wolof, and partly in French. Neither language was one Alessandro was very familiar with.

A classroom at the Mboro school Alessandro attended | Photo courtesy of Kristine Lauria

“There were some words [the teacher] wrote on the board that were really similar to English,” Alessandro says. “But a lot of the time, it was hard to understand the teacher. He would teach in French, but give directions and stuff in Wolof, so it was really hard being there for six hours and not understanding most of what the teacher was saying.”

Alessandro says he hopes to learn the Wolof language at some point, but is more likely to learn French to start with, and says there are some people in the village who speak French. Alessandro’s mother is fluent in several languages, but she says none compare to the native Wolof language of Mboro.

“It’s a really difficult language to speak. I’ve traveled to a lot of places and that’s probably the most difficult language,” she says.

The language barrier wasn’t the most difficult part for Alessandro in the classroom, however. He was the only student of a different race in the classroom and quickly became the object of bullying.

“A lot of the kids at the school there were just like kind of mean and were singling me out and stuff,” Alessandro says. “It was kind of annoying. … They threw trash at me.”

Alessandro explains that the problem was that the teacher didn’t show up on time, leaving a room full of unsupervised students with nothing to do.

But after the first week in Mboro, school suddenly wasn’t the problem anymore.

During one of Alessandro’s frequent visits to the beach just outside of the huts where he and his mother stayed, he stepped on a large piece of glass in the sand.

“When I stepped on it, I had to hop all the way up to the house, which is a long way to hop while a bunch of blood was pouring out of the cut, and when I got to the house I could see the tissue coming out of the cut,” he says. “It was really gross.”

His mother immediately treated and stitched up Alessandro’s foot at their hut. The cut was severe enough that it prevented Alessandro from attending school for the rest of the time he was there.

Despite the challenges, he says, he has returned from his trip to Mboro with greater motivation to continue with his project.

“I want this project to be ongoing so that I can make it bigger and help more people,” Alessandro says. “I’m going to focus just on one village and just focus on them to help. … I was thinking about going to other schools for fundraising because my school’s really small and they raised $470. Since my school’s small, then bigger schools could raise more money so that I could get more nets.”

Alessandro also received a $1,000 grant from the Mountain Forum for Peace to help fund his project. Lauria says they will be looking into getting more grants as well.

“It’s really important to Alessandro that people know that every dime of their donation goes toward the nets,” Lauria says. “When Alessandro was born, I had hoped he would someday go out into the world and make a positive difference. I believe he already has.”

Donations to the project can be made through Alessandro’s Paypal account, or by mailing them to P.O. Box 730, Nederland, 80466.