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When volunteers return from service trips abroad, they often ask, "What can I do now?"
Both in talking to recent returnees from Guatemala and reading the blogs and trip reports from all of our international volunteers, I see a common theme: There is always a turning point in a trip when a human connection is made.
Sometimes that connection occurs immediately upon arrival to the country. For example, the chatty cab driver may usher the outsider into the local culture so effectively that the volunteer is immediately enraptured and becomes a part of the community. More often, though, our volunteers grapple with the change of culture, values, lifestyle and systems.
Before going to Guatemala, volunteers have heard the statistics: 45 in 1,000 infants do not survive their first year, and 40 percent of those die of respiratory infections. Of the 200,000 casualties of the recent civil war, 83 percent were Mayans from the Quiche area (bordering Alta Verapaz), meaning almost every household lost a family member in the war. Farm profits have also been lost as deforestation has caused erosion and massive mudslides to occur on previously rich soil. Furthermore, farms have been divided into smaller plots and globalization has reduced the cash value of the crops. The loss of agrarian ability has contributed to nearly half of Guatemala’s population suffering from malnutrition. Almost 75 percent of the indigenous people live in poverty.
Those heavy numbers come to life when our volunteers come face to face with the Guatemalan people, and often it is just one person who makes the trip turn from an exhausting and daunting experience to an exhilarating and eye-opening adventure. Often, just one voice resonates; one face remains in the minds of the service team members despite that they may have met hundreds of people. That person is someone who seemed so familiar, or someone whose face appeared to have witnessed a great deal of tragedy in his or her life.
Whatever the reason for the connection, it changes the meaning of the service trip. Where once the meaning was about gathering numbers (do X many surgeries on X many patients in X many days), the meaning of the trip is now about promoting the human dignity and upholding the self-determination of each person and his or her community on a case-by-case basis. Success for both the Guatemalans and the volunteers lies in finding shared values, creating social bonds, recognizing cultural identity and building social bridges.
These lessons of shared humanity are found 3,000 miles from home, yet they are implemented daily in the volunteers' personal interactions as they have an expanded view of knowing, being with and doing for in a community that had before seemed foreign.
Upon returning to their jobs in the U.S., the concept of patient-centered care takes on a deeper meaning for the volunteers. They have an increased ability to provide empathetic support, to respect patient preferences, and to collaborate with patients and their families regarding their plan of care.
To answer the volunteers' question, then, of "what can I do now?" my answer would be to remember the human connection that was made in a distant place under challenging circumstances. In doing so, the volunteers honor the person they remember who influenced their world view, who turned a number into a human face.
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