Caitlin Burnett '05 Helps Others Help Themselves

Caitlin Burnett ’05 spends an eye-opening summer in Bangladesh working to help the disabled.  by Greg Ryan ’08

Caitlin Burnett ’05 sat among the two dozen Bangladeshi women and children who had assembled on the straw mats in their village center. As always, she began the meeting by asking those gathered why they had come. One woman, crouching in the oppressive humidity as her intellectually impaired son, Rimon, sat cross-legged at her feet, spoke. “Some of us have hands, eyes, or legs, while others don’t,” she said through a translator. “We must come together to work.”

Caitlin had made the 11-hour paddleboat ride necessary to reach the village of Barisal, an impoverished region in southern Bangladesh, for that exact reason — to help people help themselves. She spent last summer in Bangladesh, one of the most densely populated and desperately poor countries in the world, working with BERDO, the Blind Education and Rehabilitation Development Organization. The nongovernmental organization was founded in 1991 to help all people with disabilities — expanded from its initial mission to help the blind — improve their lives via education, medical assistance, microcredit options, and employment opportunities. Caitlin was partnered with BERDO through the Advocacy Project, a group that sets up volunteers with social justice organizations worldwide.

The 25-year-old, who holds degrees in politics and psychology and earned cum laude honors from IC, will graduate in December from American University’s School of International Service with a master’s degree in ethics, peace, and global affairs (global environmental justice track). In Bangladesh she was overwhelmed by the abject poverty. “I had a vision of what a developing country would look like,” she says, “but when I got there, it was like nothing I’d ever seen.”

Electricity, reliable transportation, and medical care are luxuries for many Bangladeshis, and Caitlin learned quickly that the country’s widespread poverty and prevalence of disability — BERDO says that Bangladesh has a disproportionate number of physically disabled citizens — are strongly intertwined. “A lot of the disabilities are actually preventable,” Caitlin says. “It’s really just a question of resources.”

Caitlin created a website and newsletter for BERDO during her 11 weeks in the country. They will help the organization spread word about its services to the disabled and attract new funding. “Working in such different conditions, with such different people,” she says, “has made me a much stronger communicator.” She hopes those newfound skills — and the spirit embodied by Bangladeshis like Rimon’s mother-will propel her into a lifelong career of helping others help themselves.

Look for Caitlin’s blog from Bangladesh at under “2007.”