Recycling soaps and saving lives in rural Panama

Kimberly Howard founded Prospera Panama to provide healthcare for all, even for those at the very end of the road.

by Nikhil Sreekandan

© Prospera Panama

While working as a Peace Corps volunteer in Panama, Kimberly Howard was asked to interpret for a US medical team that had flown down to perform cataract surgeries for the local community. Little did she know then that it would change the very course of her life. On the job, she was shocked to find out about some of the medical problems that plagued the local community. The same group invited her back the year after, and since the last 10 years, Kimberly has accompanied the medical team to different communities around the country.

It was early during one of these trips that she met a little boy, who was very nauseous and sick and had come in to see the doctor. “The moment he sat down to visit with the doctor, he threw up. He threw up a worm the size of the length of my arm. The most shocking thing about it was that no one was surprised. They took the worm outside and they chopped it into little pieces and buried it and we went on with the appointment,” says Kimberly.

There are a billion people in the world that suffer from intestinal worms and about 68 per cent of them could be completely eliminated by just washing hands with soap. But like many others, communities in Panama can’t even afford soap, and they lack access to clean water.

On her most recent trip, in February, just before the pandemic, Kimberly was escorting patients to the bathroom to collect urine and stool samples when she noticed that there was no soap anywhere. The medical camp was at a local school shut for summer vacation. The sudden realisation that the children here go to school all year long without soap sowed the seeds for what was to come.

Over the next six months, while in lockdown, Kimberly set up Prospera Panama, a soap recycling and healthcare initiative for the people of Panama. INKLINE caught up with her over Skype, a day before the organisation’s first soap recycling machinery kit was shipped out to the Darién, province of Panama, for the first pilot programme.

Kimberly Howard founded Prospera after 10 years of working with local people in Panama, first living in the country as a Peace Corps Volunteer, then returning annually as a medical interpreter with a cataract removal team. © Prospera Panama

INKLINE: Why the Darién province in Panama?

Kimberly Howard: In Panama, there is something called the Darién Gap, a break across the North and South American continents. Panama is a long, skinny country, and when you get towards Colombia, the road simply stops, it doesn’t continue through to Colombia. The jungle here in the Darién province is so dense, and the region is considered one of the most dangerous areas in the world because of drug trafficking. And so you can imagine, a road that leads nowhere. No one is going to send business or supplies. There is no commercial or government benefit in developing the area, and so the people that live here are mostly indigenous.

There are four major groups in Panama: the Ngöbe-Buglé, the Kuna, the Emberá-Wounaan, and the Naso-Bribri. They all still live on ancestral lands in semiautonomous reservations called comarcas. So except the villages along the Interamericana which have some access, if you live in any of the satellite villages around here, it is entirely up to you to get whatever supplies that you can carry via a horse cart or boat. And, the lack of access to medical care is extremely high.

I: Where did the idea for soap recycling come from?

K: After I came back home from my trip to Panama just before the pandemic, I started searching for a better way to reach these people. Because it is clear that even though there are medical missions that visit every year, it is not instigating any local change for health within these communities. That is when I came across the efforts of Sundara Fund, started by Erin Zaikis. I contacted their Executive Director Michelle Fusco, and she and I had a long discussion about the value of soap and its ability to change lives.

How to turn used hotel soap into brand new bars? Find out in this video. © Prospera Panama

She sent me a brochure called the Association of Soap and Hygiene Solutions, and it is all about how to implement soap recycling in any community in the world. When I read through the requisites for where the programme can be implemented, it just sounded so perfect for the community that I am so familiar with, in Panama. So I contacted Nadine Gonzalez, Mayor of the Pinogana, Darién, and it has just grown from there. I have got government officials calling me and local people have reached out — all excited that we are going to bring soap and better health to their community. So it’s just spiralled and gotten a lot of traction.

I: How far along are you in putting all this together?

K: I have two employees in Panama, a site coordinator and a country coordinator. One lives in the city and one way out in a remote village where our pilot programme will begin in January. We have partnered with Eco Soap Bank, which functions in 10 countries in and around Southeast Asia and Southern Africa, and they have provided us with 2000 pounds of soap that we are putting in a shipping container en route to Panama tomorrow. And today, I’m driving our very first soap recycling machinery kit to the shipping container in Alabama, which will arrive in Panama in the first week of December. We have all of the management and supplies in place, and when we arrive in December we’ll train everyone, and the programme will begin in the New Year.

Soap recycling equipment being loaded on to a shipping container bound for the canal. © Prospera Panama

I: ‘A Soap recycling and healthcare initiative’. How does the healthcare side of things work?

K: I trust people who are educated in their field to make the best decisions for the people in that area. I don’t want to be in control of every movement in the community. They have plans to develop, the clinics there have plans to do outreach. But they don’t have the funding to do it. So part of the fundraising for Prospera, it not only goes to paying women who make the soap, it pays the drivers that bring the soap, and we are also renting the community facility where the women will be making the soap.

Every community in Panama has a development committee, who along with the mayor, makes the decisions. We will be paying them over and above what is needed to rent the facility so that they can start on the checklist of things they would like to complete. On top of that checklist for the city called Metetí, where we are conducting the pilot programme, is a mobile health unit. We will also be providing soap for the local clinics, like the health stalls in the area, and the mother, baby and general health clinic that is directly across from our pilot school programme.

We also have a partnership with the South Western Adventist University and their nursing programme. All of their bilingual nursing students are helping me develop a full curriculum for health and sanitation and handwashing in Spanish.

I: You really have used the lockdown to great effect and got so much done in a matter of months. What advice can you provide for the future changemakers of the world?

K: I feel that when you are just looking at the big picture, it can seem overwhelming. With this project, what I did was to start having conversations. I genuinely think that if you speak about something you are passionate about, it will develop and the connections that you need will appear. Even if you are not sure of what exactly is that you are searching for, talk about it, reach out to people. People that have run businesses, people that work in the field that you are interested in, and the people in your life who respect you and care about you and who want to see you be successful. I’ve spoken with teachers of mine, former surgeons I’ve worked with, with local community members and indigenous leaders whom I’ve met through my years of interpreting.

Just reach out and speak about what you are interested in doing, and they will help you refine what it can be or even take it in directions that you didn’t know it could go. I had no idea when I started this that there was a supply of soap sitting in warehouses across the United States, just waiting for somebody to have a use for it. I would never have imagined it even existed until I had asked how do you get soap to your communities; I would never have found out.

Samir Lakhani of Eco-Soap Bank on how recycling soap can be invaluable to healthcare.

I: What are the future plans for the organisation?

K: I think the biggest goal that Prospera has in addition to education and getting soap to as many people as possible is that next level: healthcare available in every single one of these villages and communities. Ten years ago, they started building a hospital in Metetí, and it is still just a concrete slab ten years later. It would require a lot of government influence and cutting through red tape to make them build more clinics. But there have been other agencies in the world, for example, Orchard Africa, what they did in the AIDS epidemic, they taught local people who are interested in nursing and healthcare to be home health aides. They taught them how to administer medicine and how to get their nursing certificates so that they can then pay local individuals to care for the people in their neighbourhoods and communities.

What I would want in the next 3-5 years is for us to create a mobile health programme where Prospera has 10 nurses trained that can call on one doctor in a remote office. They can then reach out to all the people in their community who need medicine and be there for people who are sick, provide first aid medical care, and if there is an emergency they can call in and receive medical help for that person. So that we are not worried about how many buildings we have in these remote regions, but we know that they are getting care.

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