Becoming A Global Advocate in Haiti, Not Just A Volunteer
By Olivia Gilmore
It has been said that traveling is arguably the sole purpose of human existence, to learn, to discover, and to explore unknown territories.
I played this thought over and over in my head trying to convince myself I made the right choice and I boarded my direct flight out of the country to Port-au-Prince, Haiti.
The air was thick with humidity as I tried to acclimate to the 100-degree weather I was about to endure for the next nine days. As I boarded the bus, dozens of Haitians glared, and me and the other University of Massachusetts Amherst students, probably wondering what 14 young girls were doing headed to the Western side of Haiti on a Monday.
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Haiti’s Capital City
Before we arrived at the compound, I got a quick glimpse of Haiti’s capital city at work. As a peered out of the bus window, I briefly saw the streets lined with hundreds of people, many street vendors were cooking under the blazing sun.
Everything seemed to be moving so fast, but for me, the time had started to slow down. I was in a new place, a whole new culture, I wanted to understand it all, learning about a new culture takes time, and I wanted to give it the full attention it deserved.
The purpose of this trip was not only to explore Haiti’s beautiful culture abundant with a rich history but to help provide the community of Pont Morel with consistent access to free healthcare and medical education.
If you are a college student looking for a purposeful service trip filled with cultural immersion and community development, then look no further than YourStory International.
Why YourStory International is Different
In today’s society, it is crucial to be skeptical about which volunteer programs are created for profit, and which ones are created to actually benefit the community in which they serve. I chose YourStory International not only for its low-cost program but also for its worthwhile message to its advocates.
Sure, you can go on any volunteer program’s website and see a spiel about meaningful service, but after experiencing a week as a YourStory International advocate, I can vouch that the program lives up to its promises.
Compared to the other international development organizations, YourStory International makes a commitment to empowering the communities they work through responsible aid, sustainable empowerment, local leadership, and research-based methods.
The first thing you will learn about this program is that it is extremely against short-term aid, primarily because it is very counterproductive to send food, supplies, and free labor to a displaced community, as it just hurts their businesses and local workers.
By providing long-term aid and hiring locals to work with the program, constant benefits are readily available to the community and no one has to worry about the program picking up and leaving.
The program works to incorporate anthropological research beforehand to understand the culture at large, and then use that information to set up medical clinics run by Haitian staff members.
What the Locals Need
Programs are not put in place based on what the organization thinks the community needs but are based on surveys from locals that help indicate exactly what they think their community is lacking.
The program is proud to stand by several notable mission values, including promoting the health, wellness, and safety of women and children, improving access to education and employment, supporting the growth of sustainable communities and cross-cultural relationships, and delivering aid in a meaningful and culturally aware way.
Getting to know YourStory International
YourStory International advocates are college students who are trained to perform fieldwork on an eight-day group journey in Leogane, Haiti.
Students are required to apply for the expedition, if accepted, they are then trained on how to be an advocate and how the clinics are run.
YourStory International is a perfect service trip for pre-medical students, as it gives them practice as an international medical professional in a diverse culture. However, non-medical students are also welcome to apply!
I had the choice of either challenging myself to learn the inside outs of the clinic’s medical training or choosing the community development path, which involves doing the non-medical work, like interviewing locals for the program’s new segment called Humans of Leogane!
The Clinics in Haiti
The Pont Morel Primary and Emergency Care system is the long-term medical aid system that has been put in place by YourStory International to help supply Pont Morel and local villages with basic healthcare. Advocates use the three-step system, which includes community health screenings, clinic appointments, and community follow-ups.
Prior to each clinic day, advocates venture out into the community with the Creole translators and perform physical examinations. Luckily, if you are a non-medical student like myself, YourStory International provides mandatory information sessions leading up to the trip, so that all advocates know the basics, such as how to take blood pressure, heart rate, and the common illnesses prevalent in the community.
Going door to door, advocates ask families if they know of anyone who is ill. Once assessments are made, at-risk patients receive an appointment at the clinic for the following day.
Patients with chronic illnesses that do not need to see a doctor or receive medication are invited to attend individualized health education sessions at the clinic where they garner appropriate and culturally sensitive ways to treat their conditions.
A Clinic Educator, or a Door Guard
I had the opportunity to be an educator in the clinic, I quickly found out that knowledge goes a long way!
On clinic days, advocates work from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. occupying different roles based on their preferences and abilities. If you are not too keen on being a medical scribe or working in triage, offer to take the responsibility as a door guard or babysitter.
Advocates work hand in hand with the Haitian doctors, nurses, and translators to make sure patients understand their diagnosis and how to properly treat their illnesses. Current funding allows the clinics to be completely free, from education to medication. This allows for people who cannot afford for-profit healthcare to receive the basic care they need and deserve.
On our first clinic day, after seeing the last of 130 patients, weary from the minimal amount of advocates we had working, our clinics Dr. Tony came out of his exam room and exclaimed with a huge grin on his face, “Who’s next, I’m ready for one more!”
We all chuckled and our spirits were quickly lifted. Ironically it started downpouring the minute after we saw our last patient, we danced in the rain and washed away all the exhaustion from a hard day’s work.
Typically, a couple of days after each clinic, advocates will revisit each home and check in with patients to see how their visit went and if they are taking their medications properly.
During my stay, instead of follow-ups, we decided to talk to the women in the local villages about pregnancies and menstruation. The information we received from the local women will help YourStory International build a women’s health clinic in the future.
How It All Started
After the 2010 earthquake that left catastrophic aftermath in Haiti, YourStory International’s founder, Kevin Lombardi, traveled with a United States aid organization to Haiti.
Once there, notable problems began to emerge with the way international aid was being conducted. Even though the volunteers meant well, many of the sponsored projects were not working directly or even indirectly with the communities that they were trying to assist, many communities were left with a say in what was going on.
After recognizing that this was a significant issue facing many communities, Kevin performed four years of anthropological research before creating YourStory International.
Since 2014, expedition groups have been traveling to Haiti in summer and winter sessions to participate in empowering local communities medically and economically
An Insider’s Experience
If you don’t like bugs or are an arachnophobe, I suggest you sit this trip out. I had my fair share of cockroaches, centipedes, and don’t forget, a massive tarantula, come greet me in the middle of the night.
But not to worry, the wonderful people you will have the pleasure of meeting, the incredible food you will end up trying, and the sunsets will make up for all the bugs.
By far the most memorable part of the trip is seeing the difference you are making within the community you are working in. Although I was only a small part of a large group effort, I had the ability to see a woman’s face light up as her children got to see a doctor for the first time, relief flooded her face and in that moment I knew that it was all worth it.
Of course, the trip is not just all work and no play. Advocates have the chance to spend one day at Le Boucanier, a beach resort on the coast of Leogane. The stunning tropical views and hammocks attached to every tree allow for time to kick back, grab a book, and simply relax.
When the advocates aren’t out in the field, the compound becomes like a second home. Sugarcane fields and tall mountains surround the vicinity and trust me, it’s a hell of a view to wake up to every morning.
So go ahead, take a leap of faith, step out of your comfort zone and volunteer to do some meaningful service in a thriving and welcoming community.
As of 2020, YourStory is no longer offering their programs in Haiti.