Public Health Brigades (PHB) is a sub-organization of the student-run Global Brigades. Our goal is to reduce the risk of life-threatening diseases in underdeveloped communities in Nicaragua, Honduras, and Panama. PHB members aim to improve the overall infrastructure within these countries through the construction of four projects: eco-stoves, latrines, water storage units and concrete floors. By establishing these projects, we would create healthier, more sustainable living conditions.
I spent my 2015 spring break in Honduras, volunteering as a Public Health Brigader. Besides volunteering in another country, my favorite part of the experience was forming meaningful relationships with the families I had helped. Getting to know these families had deepened my understanding of how different cultures and communities deal with the diseases most common in their location. In some ways, the family I had worked with has helped me more than I have helped them, because through my interactions with them, I have become much more aware of how certain living conditions and different cultural lifestyles can impact the health (and the perception of health) of an entire community.
Since then, I have been eager to encourage other college students to go on the brigades and deepen their understanding of global health as I had. As the Social Chair of the Public Health Brigade team in Duke University, one of my main goals is to foster a sense of community among our members so that they feel welcome, ready to make a difference, and prepared to work with one another. One way I aim to foster this sense of community is by organizing volunteer events in our local community. Another way is by sharing stories from past brigade members. By interviewing other brigade members who have participated in the trips and writing up stories of their experiences, I hope to help future members get a better sense of what it feels like to carry out these projects in another country.
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The following story is about my own experience with the brigade. You can learn more about who I am by looking at the rest of my site, so I won’t go into much detail describing myself 🙂
A Time Well Spent
San Lorenzo, Honduras: 3/8/15-3/15/15
I stepped out of the bus and frowned under the blazing sunlight. It was over a hundred degrees out here, and we were working from 10:00am to 3:00pm. Or at least that was the intended schedule. Yesterday, we didn’t return to our lodging at Hotel Morazán until almost 6:00.
I cursed at myself for feeling this way. Why was I so demotivated? I had been so eager to spend my spring break here in San Lorenzo, Honduras, doing hands-on volunteer work for an underdeveloped community. I had arrived here with a group of 25 students. Five of us—including me—were students from Duke University, and 20 of us were from the University of North Carolina. Together, we were brigaders of Public Health Brigades, a sub-organization of the student-run Global Brigades. Our goal was to reduce the risk of life-threatening diseases in underdeveloped communities. The first step was to travel to the underdeveloped community. Then, we improve the overall infrastructure within the home through the construction of four projects: eco-stoves, latrines, water storage units and concrete floors. The four projects were chosen based on observations of medical brigade patient records, so by building eco-stoves, latrines, water storage units, and concrete floors, we would create healthier, more sustainable living conditions for these communities.
This year, we were spending our spring break in San Lorenzo, Honduras, and we had divided up into three groups to work with three different families. My group consisted of six people: Ahmed Noor, Sumer Kanawati, Wendy Ji, Cameron Catherine, Francis Alcorn, and myself. I turned to see Sumer conversing with one of the older sons in our family. She spoke Spanish very well, and I could tell from the smile on her face and the occasional chuckles from the son that the two of them were getting to know each other so quickly. I sighed. I guess that was part of the reason why I didn’t feel so excited to work today. I couldn’t converse with our family like that, because my Spanish sucked. Well, it didn’t suck—I was currently taking Spanish 102 this semester, and it was going well. However, that didn’t mean I was ready to fluently speak with a native speaker.
Oh well. At least I can use this opportunity to improve my Spanish. I paced myself up to the family’s house, following the rest of my group through the narrow space between two small houses made of dark brown bricks. I turned the smaller house to my left, and stepped through the open space to enter the small room. This place was their kitchen, though it was like a cave with cement flooring already established. Only a cupboard, a table, and two chairs at the right corner filled in the empty space, along with the work-in-progress eco-stove to my left. I gazed at the red bricks we had stacked yesterday. There were only two layers of bricks, each with cement to hold them together. I felt that unwanted sense of demotivation tightening in me again. Today was our second day working with these families, and our eco-stove didn’t even look a third of way finished. Yesterday, we spent almost 8 hours working on this, and we didn’t even finish our second layer of bricks.
And we have only three days left before we would return back to the US.
The frown on my face remained, even though there was no sun shining into this cave-like room. How were we supposed to finish building an entire stove in four days? We’re only college students. It’s over a hundred degrees out here. I’m already sweating, and I haven’t even started working on anything yet. What if we just don’t finish? It would just be useless for the family, and we would have just wasted our time out here.
I noticed the exhausted look on Ahmed’s face, and I felt a little better. At least I wasn’t the only one who felt like we weren’t contributing much at the moment.
A few hours passed. I took a break from working, and started playing with the family’s younger sons, daughters, nieces, and nephews. There were about seven of them, four boys and a girl. They were chasing me and Wendy around, shouting in Spanish.
Suddenly, one of the boys tripped. When he started crying, Wendy, the other children, and I crowded around him.
“¿Sientes mejor?” I asked the boy.
The children burst into laughter. Including the little boy who had fallen.
Wendy smiled at me. “What did you say to them?”
I grimaced and then started laughing with them. “I thought I asked ‘do you feel better.’” Apparently, that seemed to have translated the wrong way.
I turned to see the children chattering among one another, laughing and occasionally glancing at me. I smiled back at them. So my Spanish did suck. Oh well. At least I made them laugh.
We returned to our work, and this time, I helped smear cement on the bricks that would compose the latrine. I stopped as I sensed someone jumping up and down behind me. I turned to see one of the little boys gazing up at me with unblinking, excited eyes.
“¡Vamos jugar!” He said.
I chuckled. I knew what that meant! “¿Quieres jugar?” I replied.
“¡Vamos jugar!” He repeated.
I set down my shovel. “Vale.” There was still a lot more to build. But there was no way we were going to finish this in four days. And I was in the mood to make myself useful some other way.
So I played with the kids again. They chased me and Wendy around, tagging us and shouting with joy as we froze in our tracks. This time, I tried to choose my Spanish words more carefully as I shouted back at the children, although I wouldn’t mind if I had said something ridiculous to make the children burst into laughter again.
For the next few days, I balanced my time between working on the eco stove and latrine, and playing with the children. And believe it or not, my group had completed the eco-stove and latrine on the fourth day. I watched their mother flipping tortillas on the finally-completed stove, feeling both relieved and surprised. We didn’t waste our time here after all! Most importantly, we actually accomplished something for these families!
One of the boys ran up to my side and yanked my arm. “¡Vamos jugar!”
I smiled and pulled back. “Lo siento. Estoy ocupada. ¡Jugamos luego!”
And even though I wasn’t fluent enough to have a long, legitimate conversation with anyone in the family, I still had a blast with their children. Yes, I can definitely look back at this trip and say it was definitely a time well spent.