During the fall semester of 2022, a college professor asked one of her students if she would like to go to Africa. Riley Heiliger, a Wright City native, was studying for her biochemistry major at …
During the fall semester of 2022, a college professor asked one of her students if she would like to go to Africa. Riley Heiliger, a Wright City native, was studying for her biochemistry major at Westminster College in Fulton when the unique opportunity was offered. A trip to Africa was the last thing on her mind.
In addition to her major, Heiliger is minoring in Public Health and Gender Studies. Her professor, Dr. Amanda Gowin, invited her to accompany the charitable organization, Humanity for Children, on a trip to bring public health information to the women of Tanzania.
When Heiliger graduated from Wright City High School in 2019, she was unsure of her focus as she began her studies at Westminster. At first, she thought that focus might be law. She eventually gravitated to biochemistry and public health.
Heiliger remembers calling her mom about the opportunity to travel to Africa, asking her advice.
“You obviously have to go,” said her mom, Michelle Heiliger.
“I wondered what I would see,” said Heiliger as she packed for the January 2023 trip. “I wondered how it would change me.”
Heiliger said she had a very emotional first impression as the Tanzanian people greeted her with song and dance. She had never seen such a welcome.
Her duties included offering safe birthing classes to the women of Tanzania.
“The women would walk miles to learn so they could help other women in their villages,” she said. “We toured schools, looked at water wells and sanitation. After this experience, all I want to do is to practice obstetrics and gynecology as a physician’s assistant.”
In addition to working one on one with the African women, Heiliger said she also attended meetings regarding female mutilation still practiced there. She observed the hard-working women of Tanzania and respected their efforts to raise their families in a poverty-stricken country.
“I watched them do laundry as they beat the clothes on rocks and carried the laundry on their heads,” she said. “There is no public plumbing.”
Heiliger said the birth mortality rate in Tanzania is 566 per 100,000, the sixth highest in the world. She said there was minimal prenatal care in the rural villages. Groups such as Humanity for Children are hoping to change that sad statistic.
A highly respected midwife in Africa, a woman named Agnes, served as a mentor to the Humanity for Children volunteers. She taught them to look for problems during birth and how to treat a newborn.
Another charitable organization, Miles for Maasai, provided birthing kits for the volunteers to distribute. Items in the kits and funded by donations included umbilical clamps, razor blades, antibiotic ointment, a baby blanket, a pad for the mother, wash cloths and other personal hygiene items.
“This trip confirmed what I want to do in life,” Heiliger said. “And I plan to go back to Africa in January.”
Heiliger said she attributes her personal drive to her parents, Michelle and the late Dave Heiliger. Both her parents served as Wright City mayor, a job her mom is currently fulfilling. Her parents have supported the Wright City Community Food Pantry for many years. The Dave Heiliger Memorial Foundation was founded in 2018 and offers a scholarship to area graduating seniors each year.
“I have been raised by two people that are inspired to give back to others,” she said. “If you don’t have kindness or compassion, you don’t really have anything.”
She will graduate from Westminster College this May. In the fall, Heiliger will apply for physician assistant school and plans to work at a St. Louis area hospital to begin her journey to serve women and children.
“The sky is the limit for her,” said Michelle Heiliger. “She is not afraid of hard work. She is all I could ask for as a parent and I’m glad she’s getting this opportunity.”
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