Gina Palino, a Northeastern University student, was walking down a dirt road in a Ugandan village last fall when a young girl stopped her to thank her for bringing fresh water to her village. Then, the girl made a simple request: Could Palino give her a pair of shoes?
Palino said no. At 22, she has grasped a sad reality: Giving shoes to one Ugandan child requires giving them all shoes.
“They see us as having so much, and we do,” said Palino, a junior majoring in environmental engineering. “We’re trying to help them in a way that doesn’t affect their culture.”
Palino, whose peers laud her for her intense motivation to help less fortunate people around the world, in January became the Uganda program director of Northeastern’s chapter of Engineers Without Borders. In March, to help the group return to Uganda this summer, she helped raise $2500 in public funding through Northeastern’s new kickstarter website.
Her work in Uganda, Palino said, has taught her many lessons and increased a desire to help others that began on Sept. 11, 2001. She was in her New York City sixth-grade class when the highjacked planes struck the World Trade Center.
“My mom had dust in her hair when she picked me up from school,” Palino said. They couldn’t head back to their home in lower Manhattan and Palino hadn’t heard from her father.
“The whole experience of not being able to go home or know where my dad was,” she said, then paused. “I just didn’t want anybody to feel that way, ever.”
Luckily, her father was safe. But the shock of that day showed her that even the United States isn’t adverse to disaster and made her determined to help people in parts of the world that were far worse off.
Her university’s Engineers Without Borders group, one of five student chapters in Greater Boston, built wells to provide fresh drinking water to Bbanda, Uganda, in 2010 and is at work on a water distribution system to pump water throughout the village. The three-year project would eliminate several hours that villagers spend traveling to and from the wells each week.
As the program director, Palino deals more with teaching the Bbandans about their water than the technical aspects of the projects.
“I’m really into the kids,” she said. “They don’t have any idea what we’re doing, but so much aid to Uganda has been unsuccessful that they’re just happy to see us.”
Palino’s friends said she is as genuine as she presents herself.
“She would always make me feel included and helped me get through those rough days when I just wanted to go home,” said Adriana Santiago, Palino’s roommate since their freshman year in 2008 and a native of Puerto Rico. “I really don’t know how I could’ve done it without her.”
When Hurricane Irene prevented Santiago from traveling home last August, Palino helped her move everything into their new apartment without hesitation.
“She is always willing to help others and give 110 percent to everything she does,” Santiago said.
Stephanie Riddel lived down the hall from Palino their freshman year, and the two have maintained a close relationship since.
“She has always been more socially and environmentally conscious than I and many people our age,” Riddel said. “She has inspired me to know more about the world and what is happening in it.”
Palino will travel to Uganda one more time with the college group. She hopes to see more – and help more - of the world after graduation – by joining the Peace Corps. That Ugandan girl who wanted the shoes has helped prepare Palino for whatever she might do next. She forced her to realize she is only one person.
“I can’t fix everything,” she said.
This article is being published under an arrangement between the Boston Globe and the Boston University News Service.