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Each week, Beyond Boulders delivers a new installment of “Five Questions for a Fellow” – an interview series with Schweitzer Fellows across the country and in Gabon, Africa who are leading the movement to eliminate health disparities. For an archive of previous “Five Questions for a Fellow” interviews, click here.

It’s a sad but true fact that due to a number of factors, children with disabilities are disproportionally vulnerable to sexual and other abuse.

As a Schweitzer Fellow, Jamie Eastman is doing her part to address that vulnerability. This University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health is collaborating with the Western Pennsylvania School for Blind Children to develop and administer a sexual education curriculum that empowers the school’s students to safely navigate adolescence.

Why did you decide to develop your particular project?

I’ve been passionate about education my entire life. Before I decided to go into public health, I seriously considered becoming a teacher. Then, when I was studying in South Africa, I realized that I was really interested in doing sexual education.  The area I volunteered in had an HIV rate of almost 40%. When I returned to the States, I felt like I needed to find some way to help. I started volunteering at an HIV/AIDS organization doing sexuality education.

The Western Pennsylvania School for Blind Children (WPSBC) has been in Pittsburgh since 1887 and serves 175 children ages 3-21. The students there are not only visually impaired, but have another disability that keeps them from being able to enter the public school system.

The curriculum and interdisciplinary environment that WPSBC has built is incredible and provides the students with an individualized plan to meet their needs.

When I first approached WPSBC about doing my project, they asked if I would be willing to do sexual education. Students at the school are at high risk for sexual abuse because of their medical status. In addition, the older students need education surrounding puberty in order to navigate their way through adolescence into adulthood.

My hope is that by collaborating with WPSBV I will be able to create a curriculum for sexual education that can be used for years to come.

What do you hope will be the lasting impact of your project on the community it serves?

I have two hopes for the lasting impact of my project. The first is that when I finish, I will be leaving the school with the ability to keep the sexual education courses running without me. The second is that I will leave the students with the ability to make smart decisions about their bodies.

What do you think is the most pressing health-related issue of our time, and how do you think it should be addressed?

I believe access is the most pressing health-related issue of our time. The US is one of the richest countries in the world, yet a significant portion of our population lacks access to basic health care. Health should not be a privilege. It should be a basic human right. We need to find a way to make basic health care available to everyone.

So many steps toward this goal have been taken in the last year, but we still have a long way to go. It is important that people continue to write to their congressmen and ask them to support equal access to healthcare.

What has been the most surprising element of your experience as a Schweitzer Fellow so far?

The most surprising thing to me has been how helpful and encouraging everyone has been. All the teachers and the staff at the school have been incredibly hospitable and helpful. I know that sometimes my presence in the classroom makes things more difficult for them, but they have always been incredibly patient.

The professors at my school have also been a tremendous resource. They have gone out of their way to put me in touch with people who might be able to help me with my project. In addition, they have been nothing but supportive. A mentor of mine has taken multiple afternoons out of her busy schedule to simply listen to me talk about my project and help me brainstorm. It really has been wonderful to feel so supported.

What does being a Schweitzer Fellow mean to you?

It’s still early in my time as a Schweitzer Fellow, so I am still growing to understand more of what being a Fellow means. Right now, it means so much to me that I am able to be around so many other students who want to change the world. They are all incredible people and I’ve learned so much from them.

Jamie Eastman is a Schweitzer Fellow in Pittsburgh, PA. Click here to read more about The Pittsburgh Schweitzer Fellows Program and the Fellows like Eastman it supports in creating and carrying out yearlong direct service projects. To make a gift to The Albert Schweitzer Fellowship in honor of Eastman’s efforts to empower children with disabilities, click here.