Isabel Anderson is helping those ‘whose lives may be cut short’

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As Isabel Anderson approached the Ghanaian hospital where she was volunteering, she encountered a woman sobbing because her son had died. Accompanying the mother inside, they found the dead boy in a room full of sick children.

"Here (in the United States) his sickness could have been easily treated, but there it was deadly," said Anderson, a senior at Bishop Ireton High School in Alexandria. "It was defeating because you couldn't do something, anything."

The desire to do something for others - be it picking up rusty nails in a Costa Rican schoolyard or cleaning the wounds of lepers in Ghana - has defined Anderson's young life.

When she turned 7, she asked her birthday party guests not to bring gifts but instead books for schools devastated by Hurricane Katrina. While at Ireton, the parishioner of Blessed Sacrament Church in Alexandria started a club whose members visited the pediatric ward at Georgetown Hospital.

Anderson's first major service trip was to Costa Rica before her sophomore year. Because of the numerous earthquakes in the country, a wall at an elementary school had fallen, and people were climbing over it stealing food intended for the children's lunches. Anderson's group helped fix the wall and clean up the playground. "It was really dangerous for the kids," Anderson recalled, "with rusty nails sticking out and the areas sloping down from the earthquake."

Over the past two summers, Anderson spent about two weeks in Ghana, West Africa, with a program called Projects Abroad. During her first trip, she performed community outreach to schools and orphanages, administering malaria tests and providing nets to prevent the spread of the mosquito-borne disease. "Sometimes people won't go to hospitals there until it's too late because it's expensive," said Anderson, who also worked at a camp for people with leprosy, cleaning and bandaging wounds.

"It's a very Christian country," but lepers are still frequently rejected, she said. "It's almost like going back into Jesus' time; no one (wants) to touch them and they are often shunned."

On her second trip to Ghana, Anderson contracted a bad stomach virus and was taken to what she called a "not terrible but rudimentary" hospital. What was most upsetting to her was being unable to do the service work she'd come to do. "I hated it at first," she said. "But then I saw that God wanted that to happen, because if I'm going to help sick people in Third World countries, I have to know what it's like to be sick there myself."

Anderson's willingness not only to serve but also to encounter personally the suffering of others is driven by a close relationship with Jesus.

"When you really look at people, you realize that human life is so amazing - and all because of God," she said.

This fall, Anderson plans to study public health in the honors program at Tulane University in New Orleans, aided by an academic scholarship from the university and a service-based award from the Catholic Business Network of Northern Virginia. She's already "mapping out in her head" her post-college dream to create an organization that builds hospitals in rural areas and works to reform health care systems in developing countries.

"Life is such a gift," Anderson said. "I'm going to try my best to help those whose lives may be cut short."

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2016