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Through Leadership and Example, this Kenyan Nurse is Helping Young People in His Community Make Better Life Choices

Quality healthcare and tireless community outreach, including mental health support groups, have made Stephen Omondi Shikuku and his colleagues successful in getting hard-to-reach populations to seek treatment for chronic conditions such as HIV, TB and drug addiction.
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As a teenage orphan living in one of the poorest slums in Kenya, Stephen Omondi Shikuku witnessed many youths fall victim to crime and substance abuse. “I lost so many of my friends,” he recounts. “I told myself that, one day, I will try to change this and help lift young people out of a life of drug addiction.”

This experience, coupled with seeing his ailing mother suffer without adequate medical care before her passing, drove Shikuku to pursue a career in nursing.

Shikuku begain his career with a diploma in nursing and is currently enrolled in a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BScN) at the Aga Khan University School of Nursing and Midwifery, East Africa (AKU-SONAM) with scholarship support from the Johnson & Johnson Foundation. He thanks the Johnson & Johnson Foundation for enabling him to continue his education without any interruptions, for easing the financial strain on his family, and for providing this opportunity to other nurses like him to advance in their profession.

For more than 20 years, AKU-SONAM and Johnson & Johnson Foundation have partnered to promote and develop quality nursing education in East Africa. This longstanding partnership has led to the graduation of more than 3,100 nursing leaders across Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania.

Building trust with the community’s youth

In addition to advancing his nursing education, Shikuku notes that AKU-SONAM is also equipping him with the leadership, communication and critical thinking skills he needs to solve various health problems at the community level as well as in his day-to-day interactions as Health Facility Manager at Pangani Health Centre in Nairobi. The facility borders a community rife with challenges such as poverty, poor housing and sanitation, disease, crime, drug addiction, mental health issues, and unplanned teenage pregnancies. Most affected are youth and young adults aged 15 to 30.

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Shikuku leading a support group session for vulnerable youth on mental health at Pangani Health Centre.
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Shikuku with members from No One Out, an NGO partnering with Pangani Health Centre to empower youth at the community level.

Despite the stigma attached to diseases such as HIV, resistance to medication, and patients living in denial of their illness, Shikuku and his colleagues persevere to ensure the best possible care for those who need it. He recalls an incident where a young mother refused medication for HIV and later infected her new-born baby. By securing the help of a trusted and respected community leader and promoting health education and counseling, Shikuku succeeded in starting the patient on a long-term treatment regimen and measures to protect herself and others.

The COVID-19 pandemic, meanwhile, led to a spike in mental health issues among many of the youth in Shikuku’s community. “We realized that they needed specialized counseling, and this prompted us to bring in trained psychologists to help them cope and to set up support groups,” says Shikuku. He has also played a key role in creating similar support groups within the health facility for teenage mothers and youth living with HIV and reliance on drugs.

Thanks to these measures, he says the community is seeing a decline in these cases, and even with communicable diseases such as tuberculosis, as patients are more receptive to treatment. “This is very encouraging because patients who get help persuade others to get help, too. We have been able to enlist many street families into comprehensive care treatment programs by taking the time to connect with them on their level and by slowly getting into their space. They were initially a very hard-to-reach population, but now most of them come seeking healthcare services willingly, unlike before.”

Shikuku and his colleagues have also been working hard to address vaccine hesitancy and increase uptake of the COVID-19 vaccine among the population through regular community outreach and health promotion efforts. He proudly notes that Pangani Health Centre is leading in the sub-county in terms of the highest number of COVID-19 vaccinations administered.

One of the most rewarding parts of his work, says Shikuku, is seeing how many youths have overcome their substance addiction and changed their priorities—some have gone back to school, others have found meaningful employment—after having gone through the programs he leads at his community health facility.

He hopes to continue his upward career trajectory following his graduation from AKU-SONAM later this year. In his free time, Shikuku organizes environmental sanitation activities in his community, like refuse collection and clearing blocked sewerage drains.

“I want to better serve my community,” he says. “I want my community and my colleagues to benefit from my knowledge and skills, and for patients, especially the youth, to continue to look to me with confidence. Once I am more empowered, I will be able to reach more people.”