Scripps Senior Alissa Petrites Wins Davis Peace Scholarship

Alissa Petrites ’09, a humanities major from Oakland, Calif., is the recipient of a 2009 Davis Projects for Peace Scholarship, in the amount of $10,000, to facilitate her “Promoting Breast Milk Donation” project in South Africa.

102-year-old philanthropist Kathryn W. Davis launched the scholarship initiative on the occasion of her 100th birthday, in 2007, and renews her challenge to today’s generation of college students to undertake innovative and meaningful projects.

Petrites’ project is designed to further the practice of breast milk donation in Durban, South Africa. In her proposal, she notes that breast milk donation is a promising new strategy to help address the issues of poverty, deeply entrenched social inequalities, HIV/AIDS, and other major health concerns in South Africa. However, for various reasons, including widespread orphaning of children due to HIV/AIDS, breast milk is often unavailable to those who need it most. “Breast milk donation, in which breastfeeding women donate their frozen breast milk to milk banks…presents a viable opportunity for protecting the health and wellbeing of the youngest generation and thus of society as a whole,” she says.

Petrites studied in the SIT Community Health program in South Africa from February to May 2008. She was based in Durban, where she learned to speak beginning-level Zulu. “Although English is widely spoken, speaking in Zulu is an important cultural overture,” she notes, “and I hope to further develop these skills.”

Her project will have three components: a promotional campaign—geared at potential breast milk donors—for the breast milk bank at iThemba Lethu, a transitional home for orphans and vulnerable children. She will then create a combined history and manual of the iThemba Lethu breast milk bank, which can then be used in the development of other breast milk banks in the future. Finally, she hopes to expand the recipient base for donated breast milk, beginning with a series of focus groups that will explore possible challenges and cultural taboos—and ways to overcome them—that women might face in accepting donated breast milk for their premature infants. She will work in collaboration with Penny Reimers, director of the breast milk bank at iThemba Lethu, and Professor Anna Coutsoudis of the University of KwaZulu-Natal.

Petrrites describes this project as one that “fuses the social and biological, channeling the nutritional and immunological benefits of breast milk through the very social grassroots path of breast milk donation. It, therefore, engenders peace on both a material and interpersonal level.”

At Scripps, Petrites is currently co-director of Challah for Hunger, a student-run organization that, through baking and selling challah, fundraises for humanitarian relief efforts and raises awareness about genocide in Darfur.