DANVILLE -- Meg Styles is changing the world one nurse at a time.
The Danville mom, proud grandmother and real estate agent started a foundation that trains Uganda natives to be nurses who will ultimately work in their home country.
"It's the work I feel I was born to do," Styles said. "I've surrounded myself with phenomenal volunteers. I can't go wrong."
Styles started The Gretta Foundation in 2008. She named the group in honor of her mother, Margretta "Gretta" Styles, a nurse and humanitarian who died of cancer in 2005. The younger Styles had worked in the corporate world before moving to a nonprofit foundation that provided HIV prevention and care in Africa.
"I learned about chronic nursing shortages in disease-burdened countries where nurses are needed the most," she said. "The basis of The Gretta Foundation is addressing critical nursing shortages where they are desperately needed."
Africa, for example, has 24 percent of the global disease burden, but only 3 percent of the health care workforce, Styles explained.
"If you take all the disease in the world, a quarter of it is in Africa," she said. "They have a majority of disease burden without the resources." "I just felt that there was a great need," she continued. "I remembered a professional edict of my mother's which was 'You do something because you're the one to do it.' I took it as a call to action."
Globally, nurses provide more than 80 percent of patient care services, Styles said.
"They are the most impacting health care professionals," she said. "And yet, there are crippling shortages that undermine all global health initiatives."
Styles wanted to tackle the global nursing shortage, but it was clearly a daunting task. She conferred with nurses and leaders around the world, many who had worked with her mother. With their guidance, she came up with the idea of training and placing nurses within their own countries.
The next step was good old-fashioned hard work. Styles got an attorney to help establish her nonprofit foundation and then beat the pavement to get supporters and raise money. Tania Hanson DeYoung is one of the many people who's thrown her heart and hard work into The Gretta Foundation. A longtime friend of Styles, Hanson DeYoung immediately signed up to help when she heard about Styles' lofty goals. She serves as the foundation's director and secretary.
"It's a concept that really resonates with me because it just makes sense," DeYoung said. "We need more health care providers. It's about women's empowerment and role models for the young women. It's about helping their economy and helping the health care system. It's a win-win. I couldn't find anything that wasn't positive."
The Gretta Foundation targeted Uganda as a starting point because their government responded to the group's outreach and was eager to work with Styles. Nurses are trained in Uganda for many reasons, Styles noted. Economics is a driving force. Not only is it more affordable to train nurses in Uganda, but paying for training there enriches the local economy.
"If you were to look at what that (education) would cost in the U.S., that would be astronomical," she said. "We do in-country (training) because people are learning an education that is relevant to the health dynamics in their country, and they're more inclined to stay in-country."
It does no good to train Ugandan nurses on high-tech American equipment if that equipment is never used in Uganda, she explained. It costs $2,000 per year for a three-year diploma program and $4,000 per year for a bachelor's degree from a university, Styles said.
"We provide nursing scholarships," she said. "We are supporting in-country schools and nursing programs. We call them Gretta Scholars."
Styles is always on the lookout for bigger and better funding. The group relies largely on individual donations and the support of local groups such as Rotary or Soroptimist clubs.
"My club has always strongly believed in education," said David Behring, a past president of the Danville/Sycamore Valley Rotary. The club chose to support the foundation because "the program educates nurses and trains them so that they will improve the health standards in that community."
Behring, who has traveled to Africa, said "the average person doesn't understand how inadequate most medical facilities are in sub-Saharan Africa. I've walked into medical clinics and seen where two people were using beds. They're reusing hypodermic needles. There are very few doctors or nurses. Often, you'll see a hundred people in a medical clinic waiting to be seen."
When there's a shortage of doctors and nurses, he said, "the nurses have an important role as an intermediary where they can assist the doctors or even take the role of doctors to help patients. I was attracted to the fact that (the foundation is) empowering nurses in Uganda."
For every year of education, nurses commit to working in Uganda for the same number of years.
"We're educating nurses in the hopes that they'll stay at home where they're needed," Styles said.
Styles has key volunteers in Uganda who identify promising students.
"The people we choose for school are people who would never have this opportunity," she said. "Many of our scholars are orphans or conflict survivors. Some of our scholars have been abductees who have escaped rebel forces in Uganda.
"Our scholars have survived incredible circumstances in their lives. This is not a free ride. They are working very hard for their education. I want people to understand you are not just educating and empowering one person. Our nurses see, on average, 70 patients a day. That's 70 patients a day our nurses touch. If you look over a career, that number is incalculable."
The foundation focuses primarily on women, but there have also been male Gretta Scholars, Styles said.
"When you empower women, they usually have more of an impact on their community," she said. "You can teach someone to fish, but if you teach a woman to fish, she feeds her village."
The foundation has educated eight Gretta Scholars, all who got bachelor's degrees, Styles said. There are now 22 more scholars in training.
"We have 22 scholars we're very proud of, but we are looking to grow those numbers exponentially," she said. "Those numbers are not statistics. Those are human lives and people who are needlessly dying."
"It's something that can be replicated all over the world in every country," Hanson DeYoung added. "I'll watch the news and think, 'Oh my God, we need to be in Haiti or Belize.' But you know, one country at a time.
"I get a little frustrated that we're not growing bigger faster, but then I think about how much it means to each scholar and their families. I have a lot of hope about where this could go."
For more information about The Gretta Foundation or to make a tax-deductible donation, visit www.grettafoundation.org.