Fighting Polio in Africa, Thanks to MITRE's Civic Leave Program

Melissa Utzinger in Africa

As a group leader in the International Operations Department, Melissa Utzinger travels the globe helping foreign governments overcome engineering issues. Her typical challenge involves providing rigorous engineering analysis to inform key decision making of partner nations and the U.S. Their goal: to develop an integrated, cohesive system that gets the job done. But recently, she was overseas to tackle a much different challenge—how to administer a polio vaccine to a child under five years old.

"I was a little nervous about it because I don't have a medical background, but fortunately it was drops and not an injection," she says. "And I brought boxes of raisins and gave one to every kid after they got two drops under their tongue. Pretty soon, the adults were encouraging more kids to do it, so they could get raisins too." 

Utzinger joined a humanitarian mission sponsored by Rotary International in Benin, a tiny sliver of a country on the border of Nigeria in West Africa. Rotary is a founding partner of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, which has immunized more than 2.5 billion children against the disease in 122 countries. 

And despite Utzinger's busy work schedule, MITRE not only supported her desire to help others, but also provided paid time off through our civic leave program.

Working for the Health of Children—and Trees

Using her 40 hours of paid volunteer service time, Utzinger flew into the capital city of Cotonou on October 2 and spent part of the next week vaccinating the people most vulnerable to this deadly infectious disease. By the end of her stay, the Rotary volunteers had provided inoculations to more than 200 children. 

The volunteers met in the mornings at a health center where local mothers and children were already lined up to receive the vaccinations. "People got so dressed up to come,” she says. “You could tell it was an important event for them."

In the afternoons, Utzinger and her teammates went door-to-door in the neighboring slums. Each person had a distinct job: locate eligible children, maintain a wearable freezer compartment to keep the vaccines cold, administer the vaccines, and place a mark on each child's left pinky to identify those who received inoculations. 

Team members made their way through the streets, leaving chalk marks on each house to indicate how many children lived in each one and how many had been inoculated. If they missed any children the first time around, the team stopped in again on the way home to try and find them.

As part of the mission, Rotary International gave each participant a day away from the inoculation work to pursue other "volunteer" work. Utzinger opted to spend her day planting trees outside the city. She planted a variety of fast-growing saplings, some for firewood and some with medicinal purposes, such as pain relief. 

Back in her office in Bedford, Massachusetts, Utzinger has been working on a project to help a partner nation integrate their missile defense capabilities into its overall defense architecture while enhancing coalition, U.S., and regional security capabilities. But the lessons from Benin are never far from her mind. 

"The experience really gave me a better perspective on life here," she says. “You realize how fortunate we are here to have something as basic as clean running water—and you realize how important it is to reach out and help other people." 

What Is MITRE's Civic Leave Program?

The civic leave program offers MITRE employees up to 40 hours of paid time each year for volunteering on civic and community projects. It's been around for decades and is extremely popular, says Sue Stapleton, who runs the program. In 2018, about 1,300 employees applied for it.

The projects include international work, such as providing public health education on HIV in India and constructing orphanages in the Dominican Republic. Closer to home, the program covers work in foodbanks, STEM mentoring and outreach, hurricane relief, and work with veterans and senior citizens. Requests must be approved by the appropriate manager. 

"The civic leave program really underscores how important working in the public good is here at MITRE," Stapleton says. "As a company, our commitment doesn't end with the work day. We really want to support our employees in giving back to their communities in their personal lives as well."

by Twig Mowatt