“I met a little girl who was 3 years old and barely weighed ten pounds and then I met another little baby who was smaller than my journal,” said Elizabeth Nieves, recalling the day in 2016 when she first encountered severe malnutrition. “I broke down in the clinic that day because I’d never seen that before and I was just broken by the injustice of them not having access to healthcare or nutrition basics, things like food.”
Moved with compassion, Elizabeth, on her second mission trip to Haiti in as many years, left the clinic resolved to do something about the pain and problems she had seen.
A student at the University of Kentucky studying Food Science and Nutrition at the time, Elizabeth had planned to get a traditional job in the food industry but now felt a call to use her passion for nutrition to help mothers and babies like the ones whose faces she would never be able to forget. But she also knew she was being called to meet more than their physical needs.
“It was important to me to work in a faith-based context because I couldn't imagine helping mothers with sick children and not even being able to pray with them,” she said.
Elizabeth, however, wasn’t sure if nutrition and missions could even go together. So, after finishing graduate school, where she concentrated on Food Policy at an International Level, she began exploring her options by attending the annual Global Missions Health Conference at Southeast in 2017. There, she heard from those in the medical missions field already doing what she dreamed of.
“That was very encouraging and got me really excited,” she said.
Now knowing her dream could become reality, Elizabeth took the Perspectives class at Southeast in 2018 to gain a better understanding of the theology of missions, including God’s heart for the world and the nations.
The following year, Elizabeth found “the sweet spot of where my passion for nutrition meets the purpose of missions” as she accepted a job as the Global Nutrition Program Developer with Children’s Relief International.
“The first line of the job description was, ‘Do you have a heart for maternal and child health and nutrition and those living in deep poverty?’ It just felt like someone had been peeking into my thoughts. It was the role I had been looking for but didn’t know existed,” she said.
Still, Elizabeth was initially hesitant because it would require her, in her role as a missionary, to raise financial support to help pay her salary. After praying about it, however, she felt peace, knowing that God would provide for her financially.
“If this was the dream job, the exact calling that I felt and what I would have wanted it to be, why would I not step into that? I realized that the only thing I was relying on was that security and income from a normal job,” she said. “So, I had to give that up to the Lord, and was, like, ‘Okay. Well, if You open this door through the interviews and they offer it to me, then I am going to walk through that.’”
Besides supporting and encouraging international partners on the ground daily, Elizabeth goes overseas three or four times a year, where she gets to walk alongside mothers, not only teaching them proper nutrition, but pouring into them relationally.
“I get to check on the babies and make sure they’re growing, get to implement nutrition strategies to help them, and teach mothers how to use what they can find at the market or grow themselves,” she said.
For instance, Elizabeth teaches the importance of food diversity. Too much of the same thing, even something as healthy as corn porridge in areas where corn is readily available, can become nutritionally deficient if it’s the only thing someone is eating. Adding other foods that can be easily grown in the region to the diet can positively affect a person’s health.
“You can grow pumpkins in the middle of your corn and get extra nutrition that way,” she said.
Elizabeth admits she has had to give up some things, such as a higher salary, that she likely would have had with a traditional job, “but then you go to the field, and it reignites everything that motivates you. All of your sacrifices just seem so small and inconsequential.”
Such was the case last year when Elizabeth was in Uganda. As everyone in the church was focused on a little girl who had a burn on her foot, the girl’s sister, Nandala, who was 11 or 12 and had suffered from seizures throughout her life, came crawling in on her hands and knees through the dirt.
“She just looked so sad. She was just sitting there. No one was talking to her,” Elizabeth said.
Sitting on the floor with the girl, Elizabeth pulled out a notebook and pen from her bag and drew with her. Despite not knowing her language, Elizabeth’s team prayed with the girl, asking God to allow her to be able to walk for the first time in her life.
“We didn’t see any progress that day, but when we checked on her through our partner in the weeks to come, we found out that she had not only taken steps assisted, but that she was walking on her own,” Elizabeth said.
Elizabeth later received photos of the girl. Her eyes were brighter, and her smile was genuine. She had more confidence. “They said that it made a huge difference in the community there of just accepting her…because no one really invested much in her before,” she said.
Not everyone is going to be called to serve as an overseas missionary, but, recalling a key theme from the Perspectives class, Elizabeth said that life itself is missional.
“We all have the ability to make the people right in front of us—those who might otherwise be overlooked—feel seen and loved,” she said.