Cover Story

Among the nearly 100 million Americans who volunteer each year are many psychologists. Read on to learn about psychologists and a psychology student who are making a difference in their communities and around the world.

Cynthia Alexander. In 2003, Alexander found herself in a potato field in rural Kenya, measuring off the land that would become the foundation of a new medical clinic. The clinic, opened in January 2005, is the culmination of years of fund-raising and efforts by Alexander, a second-year doctoral student in clinical psychology at Catholic University, and her friend Poppy Buchanan.

The story began in 1999 when Buchanan, a nurse, was visiting medical missionary friends in Kenya and met nurse-midwife Susan Kaburu, who told Buchanan that her clinic needed basic medical supplies, including an x-ray machine and ambulance. When Buchanan came home she recruited Alexander to help raise money to buy the equipment, and two years later the friends delivered all of the supplies to Kaburu.

Soon after, when Kaburu decided to move back to her home village in rural Kenya, Buchanan and Alexander pledged to help her build a clinic in the medically underserved area.

Now, Kaburu and one other nurse at the clinic see thousands of patients each year, helping with everything from tuberculosis and AIDS to childbirth. Alexander and Buchanan have visited her six times in the past three years.

"Everything we do has flowed from our relationship with Susan and the other people there," Alexander says. "They know what they need, and our role is to find out what they need and then get the obstacles out of their way."

Alexander, who worked as an attorney for the Department of Justice for many years before entering graduate school in psychology, says that for now her work in Kenya and her psychology studies remain separate. However, she says she hopes to someday study mental health attitudes in the country. "Right now there's not a lot of mental health care there," she says.

Beth Boyd, PhD. Seven years ago, University of South Dakota psychology professor Boyd became concerned that some of the Native American youth in her town of Vermillion, S.D., were having a difficult time fitting into the mostly white town, and were losing touch with their cultural roots.

"It's a predominantly white town, and many of these kids were coming from reservations around the state. A lot of them had a tough time," she says. Some Native American children were also complaining of being targeted by racially tinged bullying at school.

Boyd, who has two children of her own, now ages 20 and 22, decided to get together with another Lakota parent to provide their children, and others, with a place to meet to talk about these issues.

The group, which met once per week, eventually attracted about 25 children and teenagers. At the meetings they would not only have discussions, but also do things like rake leaves and shovel snow for community elders. "We tried to promote Lakota cultural values," Boyd says. She says it's been particularly satisfying to see some of the children, now college students, grow up to take leadership roles in Native American student organizations on campus.

Two years ago, as her own children aged out of the group, Boyd handed over the reins to a new group of parents with younger children.

However, she hasn't stopped volunteering--she's filled her newfound free time working as a volunteer emergency medical technician. She says her training as a psychologist helps even with this work: "Half of what you're doing in the back of an ambulance is keeping people calm and helping them know that things will be okay."

Gaithri Fernando, PhD. California State University Los Angeles psychology professor Fernando left her home country of Sri Lanka in 1984, fleeing the escalating internecine violence there between the government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.

She studied literature at the University of Toronto and even completed a master's program at Yale University in English literature, but a trip back to Sri Lanka in 1987 changed her mind about her next moves.

"I had been mulling over my career choices, and I realized I wanted to do something that would let me help my country," she says. She switched to clinical psychology, and focused on working with and studying trauma victims. Thirteen years later she got the opportunity she had been waiting for when she received a senior Fulbright fellowship to work for a year in Sri Lanka.

While there, she helped set up the country's first postgraduate program in psychology. This summer she also worked with an organization called the Centre for Psychosocial Care, a group of 18 multiethnic counselors--Tamil, Sinhalese and Muslim--who help people affected by the war and, more recently, the tsunami.

Fernando has returned every year since 1999 to provide clinical services to victims of war and to train counselors to work with different local groups. More recently, she's also begun to work with a group called Women in Need that helps victims of domestic violence.

"These women are working in hideous circumstances," she says, "in a country with very patriarchal laws. It's a privilege for me to be able to help them."

--L. Winerman