She didn't know it then, but when Becky Kiser returned to Colorado Springs after a birthday trip to ancient Ethiopian sites in 2003, her days of being just a tourist to this African country were over.
While visiting Ethiopia's capital city of Addis Ababa, Kiser saw women waiting at the gates of a local hospital. She says they sat and slept at these gates with just the dresses they wore, urine-soaked and no shoes. All of them were waiting on the streets for a life-changing surgery.
According to Kiser, the women were victims of obstetric fistula, a condition that has been eradicated in all developed nations for more than 100 years but continues to plague those in developing countries. Fistula is a condition that happens when a pregnant woman has prolonged obstructed labor. When the baby becomes lodged in the birth canal, the baby's head cuts off the blood supply to tissues in the area. After the baby is removed and the dead tissues fall away, a hole remains between her vagina and her bladder. The woman leaks wastes for the rest of her life, and is often abandoned by her husband and ostracized by her community because of her smell and inability to have more children.
"I couldn't come back to my comfortable life without doing something to help," Kiser says. Thirteen Ethiopia trips later, what had started as a desire to assist a few women turned into Trampled Rose Outreach, a project of the local Women for Women Foundation.
Fistula can be fixed through surgery, but many Ethiopian women do not have the resources to pay for it, much less find or pay for shelter while they wait. Trampled Rose offers temporary group housing, at no cost, less than a mile away from Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital. The program also provides business and literacy training to women who cannot return to their villages, and educates people in the countryside about fistula.
Since opening in February 2006, Trampled Rose has helped more than 1,000 women. And the program keeps growing. Kiser has been asked to establish similar facilities in the Congo and Niger.
Kiser is amazed by the results she and a group of other American women who help her have seen.
"We're all volunteers," she says. "None of us have any nonprofit experience.
"There's times it's difficult. I have to tell you that the world is really out of balance. There is definitely a satisfaction to bringing a balance to what should never be."
This wife of 20 years and mother of two grown children now lives in Addis Ababa six months out of the year, three months at a time. (The photo to the left is from one of her visits, posted in her gallery at trampledrose.com.) She says where she lives, "I have running water. Sometimes. And electricity. Sometimes. There is quite a bit of public transportation, but the infrastructure would be shocking to most Americans."
Also surprising may be how Kiser funds her trips to Ethiopia. A senior sales director for Mary Kay who, yes, has earned a pink Cadillac Kiser says her business funds her African work. She was nominated for the Energizer Keep Going Hall of Fame award in 2007, but the $15,000 prize ended up going to someone else, and the daily process of raising money continued. During each three-month stint in the Springs, she says, laughing, "I try to sell as many lipsticks as I can."