Hope for Weki and His Peers

Indonesia, October 3, 2005

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One sunny morning inside of an elementary school classroom in West Sumatra's Pariaman district, a few dozen eager-looking students accepted bright yellow cartons handed out to them by their teachers.

Among the quiet bunch was Weki, a little boy wearing a black kopiah, a native Indonesian hat. The little fingers of his right hand hastily poked the sharp end of a short white straw into the fitting hole on top of the yellow carton, while his left hand held on tight to the carton box as if to prevent it from slipping from his grasp.

Nine-year old Weki is one of the first, second and third graders drinking fortified soy-milk from little yellow boxes distributed by Mercy Corps’ Sumatra Healthy Schools Program (SHSP). The program aims to fight the chronic problem of anemia and the prevalence of worms in Sumatran schoolchildren through health education and distribution of fortified soy-milk to students and their teachers. The program also provides services where children receive de-worming treatments twice yearly.

After quietly finishing the chocolate-flavored liquid, Weki carefully pressed the empty yellow carton before walking over to the large trash bin outside his classroom to throw it away.

“I like math,” he said when asked what he liked most about school. Considerably small for his age, Weki cautiously said that he usually eats just rice at home. He nodded rather hesitantly in agreement when asked whether he eats vegetables with his rice.

Children like Weki are often left to eat non-nutritious snacks sold cheaply by roadside vendors commonly found in many Indonesian neighborhoods. Fortified soy-milk is therefore seen as an alternative to unhealthy snacks these children consume. One of the ingredients added to enrich the distributed soy-milk is iron, an essential nutrient to fight anemia.

Weki is just one of the 170,000 schoolchildren and teachers in Sumatra targeted to receive the fortified drink as many as three times a week through Mercy Corps’ SHSP program.

“Children must consume healthy foods and their parents or care-givers must understand that their daily consumption can determine their nutritional status and health in general,” said Marco Savio, SHSP’s Program manager in Padang, West Sumatra.

Three other Sumatran provinces - Riau, Lampung and Bengkulu - will also benefit from this program, which educates its beneficiaries about living a healthier life. Like approximately 1,000 targeted schools in the aforementioned four provinces, Weki’s is just one among those targeted by this program.

Savio said SHSP also aims to target the bigger picture, which is to promote and sustain a healthy life-style for school children like Weki.

“We are also working with teachers and parent-teacher associations (PTAs) from 200 schools in these four provinces to receive training about nutrition, environment and health, so they can continue to educate their students about these issues,” Savio explained.

The program has earmarked funds for around 50 schools in each of the four provinces in the amount of approximately 3 million IDR (or approximately US $300), for each PTA that submits water and sanitation projects for its school. Mercy Corps will provide training to the PTAs to write their proposals for this purpose.

Distributing fortified soy-milk is also being pitched to local government institutions. Learning from other programs’ experiences across the country, SHSP develops its strategies to advocate and persuade the appropriate local government institutions to allocate funds to distribute fortified soy-milk with the same objective as well.

“So far, we have succeeded in getting one Bengkulu district government to do so,” said Savio.

Later that day, as Weki vaguely shook the flattened bright yellow carton in his tiny hand ensuring that he had finished all its content before throwing it away, he looked up to flash a timid smile as if to say that there is hope for him and his peers. Finishing his fortified soy-milk is just a little gesture that symbolized possibilities for their future.