Restoration of an island
Alumni of the Year Jamie and Alissa Shattenberg spark restoration in Madagascar
Madagascar is home to SPU alumni Jamie Shattenberg ’99 and Alissa Wuertz Shattenberg ’00, and their children.
The son of missionaries in Madagascar, Jamie was born and raised on the world’s second largest island country located off the coast of East Africa. He grew up with a love and appreciation for the land, the culture, and its people. Alissa, a California native from Santa Barbara, fell in love with Madagascar in the summer of 1999 while on a service trip with a group of fellow SPU students led by Jamie.
After graduating, the two served in Madagascar together. “We realized that we made a pretty good team,” Jamie said. They married in 2003. Eight years and three kids later, they returned with their family to Madagascar, also known as the Red Island for its red soil that is generally poor for agriculture.
Together, they founded the ministry Red Island Restoration with the goals of bringing health and healing to impoverished areas of Madagascar and supporting Malagasy leaders.
Restoration of land
Jamie spearheads reforestation efforts as international director of the Madagascar branch of Eden Reforestation Projects, a U.S.-based international organization that restores forests and other natural landscapes lost due to deforestation in developing countries. Jamie prepared for his role with an undergraduate degree in biology from SPU and then a master’s degree in intercultural studies from Fuller Seminary, but it’s a significant challenge to counteract the dire effects of deforestation on the island.
“Reforestation addresses environmental issues while alleviating poverty at the same time.”
Nearly 90% of Madagascar has been deforested, with most of it occurring within the last 50 years. There are several causes: Madagascar’s high population growth rate contributes to increased competition for cultivated land. “Slash-and-burn” practices to transform wooded areas into agricultural land carry high risks of spreading beyond control and wiping out whole forests. The majority of Madagascar’s more than 26 million people rely on charcoal for cooking and heating. “It’s seemingly impossible to keep up with,” Jamie said.
Inland forests disappear. Rain diminishes. And top soil is lost to erosion. When the rains come, any healthy top soil washes out and clogs river beds, reefs, and ocean, driving out fish that coastal towns rely upon for food and livelihood. On an island nation like Madagascar, forests are needed to protect villages from cyclones that cause devastating tidal surges. And as forests are cut down, wood and charcoal for heating and cooking becomes increasingly expensive.
“The forest is so important to sustaining life on multiple levels,” Jamie said. “There is a direct connection between poverty and deforestation. As the forests are cut down, poverty increases. And as poverty increases, more forests are cut down. Reforestation addresses environmental issues while alleviating poverty at the same time.”
To start, Jamie recruited a team of eight Malagasy to replant mangrove estuaries. In its first year, the team planted 100,000 trees on the island, which is roughly the size of France. Today, Malagasy men and women employed by Eden Projects expect to plant 40 million trees in 2019 alone, bringing the total to over 240 million seedlings planted since 2007. According to Jamie, the reemerging forests have contributed to the return of aquatic life and slowed erosion. Plus, people now have a growing care for the land. “People who once didn’t care about the forest have grown a passionate love for it,” said Jamie. “And since we’ve hired over 1,200 men and women, there is a large group of people who are pushing and encouraging and teaching [others] how to protect and care for the environment and restore it … and fight [against] the destruction of it.”
The Malagasy earn steady incomes through employment with Eden Projects, creating opportunities to provide for their families, buy property, diversify their income, start businesses, plan for the future, and establish an inheritance to leave their children. “Many who once lived in poverty now not only have a steady income and provide for their children, but they also have an impact in their communities and country,” said Jamie.
Restoration of health
After earning her bachelor’s degree in nursing at SPU, Alissa went on to earn her master’s in nursing as a family nurse practitioner. While still living in the States, she attended a conference in New Mexico about midwifery in the developing world. “I learned that women all over the world die in childbirth every day due to very preventable reasons, and how often, women are abused physically, emotionally, and spiritually during this incredibly precious time in their lives.” As a result of this knowledge, Alissa obtained her midwifery degree.
In Madagascar, the risk that a woman will die in childbirth is 1 in 45, often because no midwife or trained doctor is available.
Alissa opened the Sarobidy Maternity Center in 2013. The center offers a 14-month program run by trained midwives who build relationships with women and guide them through their pregnancy, birth, and postpartum period with medical care. Mothers receive care and education related to pregnancy, health care, nutrition, labor and delivery, newborn care, and family planning, while babies receive regular check-ups to ensure healthy growth until they are 6 months old. To date, about 1,000 women and their babies have received care at the center.
In Madagascar, 1 in 45 women die in childbirth, often because no midwife or trained doctor is available. “When women die during childbirth, the likelihood that their baby will die is high, and any other children they had are without a mother,” she said.
In response, the center provides additional evidence-based training to Malagasy midwives employed there. “Our hope with our maternity center is to empower Malagasy midwives to increase their education so that they can care for their Malagasy sisters.”
Sarobidy’s national director, Rota Rakotomalala, has known the Shattenbergs since she was young. (Her father worked with the Shattenberg’s mission agency for more than 20 years.) Her deep desire to serve her fellow Malagasy women and children led her to complete midwifery school, at which time, she and the Shattenbergs reconnected.
“We want to be a change in the Malagasy systems here, and we really care for the women here,” she said. “We get to share Jesus’ love with the women as well. I would love to see more centers like this across Madagascar. I trust and pray that God will continue to do this work.”
Nearly 90% of Madagascar has been deforested, with most of it occurring within the last 50 years.
“Rota has been the backbone and heart of the maternity center,” said Alissa. The Shattenbergs attribute the skills they use every day to improve maternal health and agricultural health on the island to things they learned in Seattle Pacific’s classrooms. “SPU was a critical part of our lives that God used to bring us together but also, to prepare us for this work,” Jamie said. It was his biology professors who instilled in Jamie a love for God and His creation while equipping him with skills he uses regularly in his reforestation work. His undergraduate research experiences on Blakely Island and on an SPU study abroad trip to the Galapagos Islands provided him with a knowledge base for his future work in reforestation.
Alissa uses her training as she works on Sarobidy best practices and caring for patients, but she says SPU had the greatest impact on her faith. “I was a new Christian when I came to Seattle Pacific, and I really fell in love with Jesus there,” she said. “God nurtured my faith through the professors, students, and the whole community of believers. That prepared me for service in Madagascar.”
Every day is different for the Shattenbergs. Some days, Jamie drops off their kids at school and leaves to visit the current mud flats Eden Projects is replanting with mangroves. Alissa heads to the maternity center for prenatal, postpartum, or family planning program days. Occasionally, the Shattenbergs travel to the United States to raise support and awareness for the programs. Last year, the family moved to France for 10 months while Jamie and Alissa took intensive courses in French, the primary language of Madagascar’s government, medical, and educational system. Even though they speak Malagasy, French has become necessary to better navigate those systems. At the same time, they are raising their own family of three children, ages 9, 11, and 13, hosting sleepovers with their Malagasy friends, attending soccer games, and spending time together as a family.
“Many who once lived in poverty now not only have a steady income and provide for their children, but they also have an impact in their communities and country.”
“The beauty of raising our kids on the mission field is that their world is large,” said Alissa. Her children can often be found outside with their Malagasy friends, making bamboo fishing poles, running down to the nearby rice paddies to fish, and cooking the fish with rice over a fire in their friends’ backyards. “Their American friends don’t really understand their Malagasy life, and vice versa, but they gracefully live between the two worlds and get to see how God works in both.”
As the programs have grown, Jamie and Alissa’s roles have shifted to include more overseas donor relations and general oversight, while their Malagasy colleagues take over day-to-day tasks and direct leadership positions. Jamie meets weekly with nine Malagasy leaders, who each oversee a different branch of the Eden team. Alissa leads the maternity center administrative efforts, while the medical staff and director lead midwifery education programs and manage patient appointments and births with the midwives.
“This ministry wouldn’t be possible without the Malagasy people,” said Alissa. “This is their country and people and culture, and we are outsiders. We look to our Malagasy teammates as leaders and seek to empower them and to rely on them.”
Georcellet “Josy” Armand, one of Jamie’s closest childhood friends in Madagascar, leads groups of planters as a national director for Eden Projects. He describes his partnership with Jamie as one that sharpens each of them. “When I make a mistake because I am just a man, Jamie helps me,” he said. “And when I see Jamie going a wrong way, I will tell him.”
“This ministry doesn’t happen because of me. I love being part of it, but it is God working through me, through Alissa, through Josy and Rota, and through every different person involved,” Jamie said. “And as grace flows through all of us, it reaches to more and more people.”