If you’ve ever doubted the power of one person to make a difference in the world, you need to meet Lydia Natoolo.
She was a 33-year-old community college student, an immigrant from Uganda who struggled just to pay her bills, when she read an article about a hospital in her homeland that had no running water and limited electricity. It lacked basic supplies and overflowed with patients.
Despite her own challenges, Natoolo knew she had to help and traveled to the hospital to examine the conditions herself.
Hospital officials were skeptical. Natoolo was living more than 9,000 miles away and struggling to make ends meet as a nursing student in Southern California.
“We did not take her seriously,” said Atutur Hospital Administrator Fred Malinga. “We never imagined anything good would ever happen because we had other people and organizations before who just disappeared without any attempt to address a single challenge. We were already resigned to our fate of hopelessness.”
But Natoolo, who grew up poor in Uganda, eating one meal a day and walking five miles to get clean water and two hours to go to school, has delivered beyond expectations.
Today, the nonprofit she founded has brought clean running water to the rural hospital — dramatically reducing the mortality rate in the process.
Natoolo hasn’t stopped there.
Now a biology student at UC Irvine, she has continued to raise money for the hospital through her Love A Community organization. With $20,000 raised by her nonprofit, the hospital now has a steady supply of electricity from solar panels.
And she isn’t done yet. Natoolo now has set her sights on addressing the issue of chronic hunger, both among patients and the wider Atutur community.
“She has proved us wrong and restored our confidence,” Malinga said. “The patients had run away from the hospital fearing infections, but now they have come back and our image and name is restored.”
Growing up in Uganda
The youngest of 28 children, Natoolo remembers being kicked out of school in first grade after her father lost his job and couldn’t pay her tuition. She showed up for class the next day anyway.
“Both parents pushed me to go to school. They told me it’s the only way out,” Natoolo said.
She lost siblings to AIDS and watched many other countrymen die as the epidemic swept the nation.
“We had no medicine. We had no care,” Natoolo said. “I always wanted to be a doctor and be able to take care of people in my country.”
Helping her homeland
That drive helped her land in the United States as a teenager in 1999, but she ended up dropping out of college on the East Coast when she couldn’t afford the fees and accumulated debt.
News from her homeland galvanized her into action a decade ago. She lobbied on Capitol Hill to raise awareness about how children in Uganda were being affected by the Lord’s Resistance Army.
“I was a quiet girl,” Natoolo said. “My life changed when I saw the suffering of the Uganda children.”
Natoolo moved to California and worked as a nursing assistant, struggling with periodic homelessness, until settling in at Saddleback College, a community college in Orange County, where she took nursing classes, became an honors student and received scholarships.
“No matter how bad things are, there are always amazing individuals who will help you survive,” Natoolo said.
Turning to Atutur
Things changed again for Natoolo in 2013 when she read a news story about the problems at Uganda’s Atutur Hospital. The article detailed how the hospital, built in 1969 for 100 patients, served hundreds more but lacked running water, was understaffed and had dilapidated equipment.
Natoolo started the nonprofit Love A Community to support Atutur Hospital and traveled there to see for herself. What she found shocked her: The surgical room had rotten walls, the electricity was sporadic and basic supplies were lacking.
“Sometimes they lack gloves. Every expectant mother has to bring her own baby clothes, bedding and soap,” Natoolo said.
“The kind of poverty that I grew up in was not this kind of poverty. It was painful.”
Natoolo tested for pathogens in Atutur Hospital’s water sources. She found that seven of eight sources were contaminated. She kept soliciting donations and raised $17,000 for a new water system for the hospital. After restoring clean water, the hospital has decreased its mortality rate to 2 percent from 19.5 percent and dramatically reduced infections over the past year.
After graduating from Saddleback, Natoolo transferred to UC Irvine — the only one of 11 universities that accepted her with a scholarship — and continued her efforts to support Atutur Hospital.
She raised $20,000 for solar panels, providing a reliable source of power for part of the hospital. But she realized that many patients were hungry.
“That broke my heart,” Natoolo said. “For a patient to thrive, they need nutrition.”
Her call for a nutritious food supply has now been answered. Three Ugandan brothers donated 10 acres, with which Natoolo’s group is launching a farm project. The plan is to grow crops and raise animals for the patients first and then the wider community, which could generate revenue for the hospital. Natoolo also wants to add an irrigation system and aquaponics.
This summer, with a UC Irvine Water scholarship, she has participated in a six-week research experience that included taking a trip to Australia to learn about ways to address water challenges. She hopes to apply that knowledge to further improve the water supply around Atutur Hospital.
She also is raising money to add more solar panels for the hospital and to buy basic supplies.
“We just have to take one step at a time,” Natoolo said. “I want to do more. My vision is to make sure the community can sustain itself.”
Natoolo already has accomplished a lot, said Richard Matthew, director of the UC Irvine Blum Center for Poverty Alleviation.
“The question we ask every day is: How do we connect the vast stock of ingenuity, passion and concern on campus to the challenges of poverty alleviation through rigorous and impactful research and education programs?” Matthew said.
“Lydia is the exemplar of a student animated by ingenuity, passion and concern. By working with her, we are learning about how to support her incredible energy and sense of purpose, about how to make that connection between the immense resources of the university and the urgent needs of our society.”
A goodwill ambassador
Amid her efforts in Uganda, Natoolo has immersed herself at UC Irvine. She was elected as a student government representative. She also serves as a student ambassador for the UC Irvine Blum Center, which has provided a platform for engaging with students and making new connections to further her work in Uganda.
“It’s opening up one opportunity after the other,” Natoolo said. “As young people, we so often think we can’t change the world. We’re still struggling to get good grades. How can I solve problems in Africa? You have education. You have talent. Use that.”
Natoolo’s efforts have inspired her UC Irvine colleagues.
“We are hopeful that at some point we will be in a position to send students to Uganda through Love A Community’s efforts to work at a rural hospital,” said UC Irvine School of Social Ecology professor Carroll Seron. “We think the work Lydia is doing is remarkable, and the opportunity to be involved in this would be wonderful for our students.”
Natoolo also has inspired filmmakers Craig Hung and Sam Sandweiss, who recently completed a short documentary about Love A Community’s impact on revitalizing Atutur Hospital, its patients and staff and the surrounding community.
“When we met Lydia, we were immediately intrigued with her passion for helping others,” Hung said. “She was determined to address the unique needs of war-torn, impoverished communities by partnering with local leaders, fostering a sense of ownership and creating long-term, sustainable solutions. As filmmakers we seek to tell stories that effect positive change in society, and we saw a perfect opportunity to do that with Love A Community.”
Natoolo continues to forge ahead at full speed. She wants to go to medical school and become a pediatrician.
Her goal is to build a children’s hospital in Uganda where children can receive free care.
“I wake up every day and say I’m the most blessed child,” Natoolo said. “I just pray for five more hours a day.”