“My friends think my schedule is ridiculous; that I’m crazy,” says Kim Hitchcock, CWU Physical Education, School and Public Health major. They might be right—Hitchcock is a full-time student, full-time mother, full-time public health volunteer—and a three-time cancer survivor.
She is now involved in a research project pertaining to the perception of sex workers and drug addicts by law enforcement officers and members of other governmental agencies.
“There are not a lot of people who are interested in working within this community or find their passion, their niche in harm reduction. This population is among the most neglected populations anywhere—not everyone feels comfortable working with this population, but I do,” Hitchcock said. “I love them and I feel empathy for everyone I work with. They’re human beings and deserve to be treated with the same dignity and respect as anyone else. I want to help them learn skills, get assistance, and gain education to improve their lives.”
Drug users and sex workers are marginalized groups that many do not consider to have full human rights, Hitchcock noted, adding, “What I do and what Harm reduction works to do is to change this view.”
Her abstract, “Listening to the Language of rural Sex Workers,” was presented at the 9th National Harm Reduction Conference in November in Portland, Oregon. Put on by the Harm Reduction Coalition, the conference is the only multidisciplinary gathering dedicated to improving the health and well being of people using or having a history of drug use.
“I’m committed to reducing drug-related harm among individuals and within these communities by initiating and promoting harm-reduction education, strategies, and interventions,” Hitchcock says. “I hope my research will help change some attitudes and beliefs.”
Changing attitudes and beliefs has been a hallmark of her time at Central. During the summer of 2011, Hitchcock, 43, spent 10 weeks serving as a public health educator in Atorkor, a fishing village in the Volta Region of southern Ghana.
“I traveled with 100 pounds of supplies,” Hitchcock recalled, which included medical provisions, funded by a number of CWU and community agencies, for Atorkor’s health clinic. It also included 4,000 brochures she had designed and written and posters on basic disease prevention, specifically cholera and malaria.
“They were extremely relevant when I got there. In the village, malaria had been on the rise for the last five years, because mosquitos are becoming resistant (to insecticides),” Hitchcock said. As she was conducting her educational work, Kim also helped hang some of the 92,000 long-lasting mosquito nets that just happened to arrive in the region at that time.
“In addition, there had been an ongoing cholera outbreak and it hit the region two weeks after I got there and people started dying,” she added.
Since cholera can be spread through unclean food and water, she also shared a sanitation and basic health curriculum, which she designed herself. While in Ghana, she also taught safe-sex practices using FLASH, a comprehensive program used in American middle schools.
The work was arranged through Village Volunteers Partners organization and CWU’s Study Abroad and Exchange Programs. She was able to make the trip as the recipient of a scholarship from the Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship Program, which aims to diversify the range of students traveling abroad by supporting students who could otherwise not afford to travel abroad.
To help her build rapport with Atorkor natives and communicate more effectively, Hitchcock prepared for her trip with the help of Sefakor Adzanku, a CWU experimental psychology graduate student. He taught Hitchcock nuances of Ghanaian culture, how to secure safe drinking water—a scarce commodity—and offered lessons in basic Ewe, while translating her brochures into the Ewe language, which is spoken in just a small part of Ghana.
“The Ghanaian government has been making efforts to educate people on some public health issues,” Adzanku said. “The problem is that, a lot of times the resources allocated for such programs do not get to the grass-root communities where it is most needed. Kim’s work went a long way to improve the public health in the community.”
While in Ghana, Hitchcock became known simply as Mama Kim, including by a young man named Godwin Kofi Bani. His mother currently pays for his schooling in Ghana by selling porridge in the morning.
Bani, 17, has a dream to earn an accounting degree and pursue a career as a bank auditor. That was not likely going to happen, until Hitchcock stepped in.
“What I have worked on most in the last six months is creating a crowd funding site to raise money to bring Godwin to Ellensburg for a high school year abroad,” she said. “If everyone made a $1 donation on indiegogo or at Yakima Federal Savings and Loan here in Ellensburg it would change Godwin’s life and educational outcome forever.”
Hitchcock’s hope is that the campaign, called “Educate Inspire Empower Godwin’s High School Year in Ellensburg, Washington,” will provide him with a chance to not only gain an education but to give back to his village his experiences in the United States.
“This is a pay it forward campaign for me,” she added. “I was given the right to go to school through 12th grade because I am a US citizen. I want Godwin to have that same advantage.”
Godwin said, “If I am awarded the chance to go to Ellensburg High School and live with Mama Kim, I will be the first ever boy from Atorkor, Ghana to have the opportunity to attend high school in the USA. I see this as a chance to gain a wealth of knowledge and valuable life lessons from this cultural experience.”
Hitchcock added, “I loved all the kids I worked with but Godwin went above and beyond; he was never asked, he just took the initiative and dove right in. He became my ambassador, if you will, to areas where I may never have gained access without his help. I currently sponsor him so he was able to start senior high [in Ghana], but I want to bring Godwin here to have an opportunity and experience that will boost his chances and choices in his educational goals.”
When she returned to the US from Ghana, Hitchcock quickly resumed her volunteer work on domestic health issues, including initiating and promoting drug harm-reduction education, and serving as a member of the Kittitas County Drug Coalition. She has assisted in community outreach to provide basic needs for the vulnerable, homeless, and poor. She also helps those with substance abuse issues, mental illness, and hepatitis C.
Hitchcock has volunteered at Kittitas County Public Heath since 2009, where she works as a community outreach worker for the HIV/AIDS program, the Never Share Syringe Exchange, and with the breast and cervical cancer programs.
As a cancer survivor, Hitchcock has personal experience with the ravages of the disease and the toll that treatment can take.
In December 2006, she was diagnosed with stage III breast cancer, and underwent chemotherapy treatment, a mastectomy, and reconstructive surgery. Ten months later, she was diagnosed with uterine cancer and endured another critical surgery. Just eight months after that, Hitchcock found a spot on her hip and was diagnosed with stage III vertical spreading melanoma, “a death sentence,” Hitchcock noted, had she not found it and been treated quickly.
Throughout all of her cancer treatment, Hitchcock remained enrolled in courses and committed to her CWU studies. She even insisted on finishing the quarter before her melanoma surgery.
“I told my doctors that if I wasn’t going to die before June, I was going to take my finals,” she said.
This resolve—or as she concedes, stubbornness—is what drives Hitchcock to juggle her extensive volunteer work with her classes and four sons: Dee, 22, Jordan, 18, Josh 16, and Jaxon, 7. Though spare moments for her are scarce, Hitchcock notes this is the only life she could want or imagine.
“My schedule can be exhausting, but I guess I don’t really have a choice,” she said. “I’m just not willing to give up any of the things I’m passionate about.”
Hitchcock, who also found time to serve as president of Eta Sigma Gamma, Central’s student health club, cites a strong support system at the university for her skills development, and for encouraging her to go further with her volunteer efforts.
“I’m not afraid to ask for help when I need it, and I’ve always found that help in my professors,” she said. “They’ve just offered so much support and assistance.”
Melody Madlem, director of the CWU public health education program, offered, “Kim is one of the most—if not the most—inspirational students I have ever had the pleasure of working with.
She has made a huge difference in the lives she has touched while here at CWU.”
Hitchcock says much of her drive comes from her father who taught public health education for more than 40 years.
“His influence has instilled in me a passion for public health education,” she said. “My father was my teacher, role model, and inspiration. He has encouraged me in my educational goals, and fostered in me a sense of civic responsibility and a desire to give back to community. He showed me how powerful advocacy can be in someone’s life. It’s what drives me to strive to be the change I want to see in the world.”
Hitchcock will graduate this spring, and plans to continue her career in public health and go on to nursing school, possibly relocating permanently, she says, back to Ghana, Vietnam, or another third-world location needing her help in changing health care attitudes and beliefs, and bringing about that change she wants to see in the world.
Hitchcock produced a YouTube video about her trip to Ghana. You can view it here.