Vanuatu partner envisions a future free of breast and cervical cancer

By Kelsey McMahon
Feb. 16, 2024

Cervical and breast cancer are the two most common types of cancer occurring in women in Vanuatu. In 2013, Max Albert, a talented musician in Vanuatu, learned his mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. Three years later, Max traded in his instruments to launch the local nonprofit, Ik-kana, which promotes screenings for early diagnosis and treatment.

Ik-Kana advocates for the early and regular screening of individuals for breast and cervical cancer. The organization’s mission is to create a cervical- and breast-cancer-free Vanuatu through education, awareness, and accessible palliative care.

In collaboration with the country’s Ministry of Health and the Vanuatu Family Association, the organization conducted five advocacy and screening services in the Malampa Province between 2018 and 2021, which resulted in a total of 2,000 preventative screenings. That’s an impressive stat alone, but it’s even more impressive given the fact that Ik-Kana’s founder was learning everything about managing an impactful NGO along the way. Ik-Kana plans to continue its focused efforts in Malampa Province before expanding to the other five provinces of the country.

A headshot of a man not smiling
Max is dedicated to promoting early breast cancer screenings.

Before Ik-Kana can expand its efforts though, the team recognized they need to first develop a clear, long-term strategy to guide and support their annual operations and mission-driven activities. Ik-Kana wants to ensure that activities are conducted in a consistent and standardized manner and that funding from domestic and external sources is secured.

With help from the Peace Corps staff, Ik-Kana developed a Statement of Virtual Engagement (SoVE). On a part-time basis, a private U.S. citizen would donate their time each week to collaboratively assist Max and Dr. Boniface Damutalau, a local gynecologist and obstetrician who lends his expertise to support Ik-Kana's programming.

Sarah Thorwirth, a returned Volunteer (Guatemala 2007-2009), was searching for a new job when she heard about the Virtual Service Pilot.

“I am always interested in volunteering and serving communities, so when a Virtual Service [outreach and selection specialist] reached out to me, I checked out the opportunities available. The engagement with Ik-Kana was a perfect match – the time commitment, the subject area, and the timing! My years as a consultant and working in the nonprofit realm gave me a great foundation for the work that I did with Ik-Kana.”

Max and Dr. Damutalau were excited to welcome Sarah, who had over 15 years of experience designing and leading programs. The three met twice a week for twelve weeks. Each meeting began with informal chats about their families and what they were up to. This strengthened their connections and allowed them to meet Peace Corps Goals 2 and 3 (sharing the world with Americans, and America with the world). During each meeting, they reviewed the work completed and set goals for the week before discussing and dividing up the action items.

A blonde woman joins a virtual meeting
Sarah joins a virtual call with the Ik-Kana team.

Slowly but surely, the three developed a robust five-year strategic plan that outlined the organization’s values, and listed eleven goals with corresponding, achievable tasks, and targeted completion dates. Completing a SWOT (Strengths, Weakness, Opportunities, Threats) analysis guided their key indicator discussions. The measurable goals included completing 50 outreach opportunities and visiting 14 high schools by 2029 to raise awareness on the importance of regular cancer screenings. A five-year budget and stakeholder questionnaire reinforced the interest in and feasibility of their plans.

“I would encourage in-person [Vanuatu] Volunteers to learn Max’s model to take out into the field. It supports the communities on a grassroots level,” Sarah suggested.

“The virtual experience was enriching. I’ve been happy to be part of the process in developing Ik-Kana's strategic plan. I would definitely recommend [Virtual Service Pilot] to others,” said Dr. Damutalau.

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Dr. Damutalau enjoys supporting Ik-Kana.

When asked about the overall experience participating in the Virtual Service Pilot, Sarah stated, “It was nice to get a little window into the culture of Vanuatu and the work being done there. I learned about the geography of the region, cultural history, history of colonization, and about how the ministries of Health and Education function. I learned about the school system, the sex education curriculum, and the components that are lacking, which Ik-Kana can help fill. [Participating] has been a truly incredible experience for me.”

Peace Corps Vanuatu staff reflected that Ik-Kana’s virtual health engagement was particularly memorable for them as well. Ik-Kana may not have had the opportunity to partner with the Peace Corps if it had not been for the Virtual Service Pilot. Vanuatu’s logical project framework results in in-person Volunteers being placed with organizations focused on WASH (Water, Sanitation, Hygiene) or nutrition. While Volunteers have supported community-level health projects before, these were secondary projects. Therefore, Peace Corps Vanuatu’s first virtual engagement allowed them to support communities in new ways.

“This was our first experience with Virtual Service. Obviously, it depends on [a partner’s] internet connectivity, but it's very doable. We've proven that with the engagement with Ik-Kana and Sarah,” one of Peace Corps Vanuatu’s program managers, Len Tarivonda, stated.

Acting Country Director Coutney Wynn added, “Because of [their] time, talent, and efforts, the foundation has been laid for efficient and sustainable virtual projects in Vanuatu.”

Post staff are optimistic that the partnership with Ik-Kana will continue to grow. Although the impactful engagement concluded this last summer, Max and Dr. Damutalau have a lot to do. Ik-Kana aims to build screening and prevention awareness in other provinces, by expanding to the Shefa province in early 2024.

The Peace Corps post staff, on the other hand, are now supporting three additional Virtual Service Pilot Participants. They expect to see an increase in the number of virtual opportunities to support partners in Vanuatu this coming year.

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