It was truly an amazing experience to go to Guatemala and immerse myself in a new culture. Five University students, including myself, who were enrolled in Dr. Chris Hirschler’s Guatemala Public Health course, traveled to Guatemala to educate the Las Amigas, rural communities, and children in the area. The Las Amigas are men and women from rural areas who are trained to promote good health in their communities that are connected to Salud y Paz.
Salud y Paz is a clinic in Guatemala that was started by an American dentist when he saw how poor most Guatemalans’ oral hygiene was. Now, Salud y Paz has grown and is serving the people of Guatemala at a low cost due to donations, volunteers, and spreading the word.
Katie Slage is the community health and surgery coordinator at Salud y Paz. She has been working with the clinic for almost three years now. When I asked her how she got started with this project, it seemed like fate. Katie said she was working as a registered nurse in Florida and began to hate her job. She wasn’t sure what her next move would be, and then her friend said she was going to Guatemala for three months to explore and jump into a new culture.
While she was there, she ran into the community health coordinator of Salud y Paz, Heather. It didn’t take much to convince Katie to take over Heather’s job. Heather was there visiting the clinic when we were there, as she frequently returns even though she is not a full-time employee there anymore.
Three years later, Katie is the director of the Las Amigas program, coordinator of surgeries, and in charge of education at Salud y Paz. Katie stated that her favorite part of her job is working daily with the people. She loves the interaction with the children at Susanna Wesley School, the Las Amigas, and community members. Katie said, “I don’t think anyone thought Salud y Paz would be what it is today and I am very happy to be a part of it.”
One of the Amigas I had the pleasure to work with was Sonia. I taught her how to take blood pressure, which was a challenge due to the language barrier. Together, we took blood pressure for members of the community to screen for hypertension and diabetes. Sonia stated that she graduated from the Las Amigas program in 2014. Like any health profession, it is still a learning process through experience. When I asked Sonia if she enjoyed this experience and working with us, with help from a translator she said, “It was the best day of my life! I never thought I would learn how to take blood pressure.”
I also interviewed Erin Comiskey, a classmate in Guatemala Public Health. She said that she had two favorite parts of the trip, the first of which was working with the children at the school. They were so eager to try anything. As we taught exercises and stretches they had never seen before, they tried extremely hard to get them correct. Her second favorite part was that a group of strangers became a family. We all went into this experience only knowing one or two people but left as a family. No one else can understand the experience and bond we shared during our time in Guatemala. Her advice to people considering going on this experience next year is, “Do it!” It was truly an eye opening experience and Erin cannot wait to go back.
Personally, I learned that I must work with children during my career. All the Guatemalan children we encountered were so hopeful and eager to learn even though some did not even know if they would be able to have dinner that night. Children are so open-minded; I have always wanted to be a pediatric physical therapist and this experience just confirmed it.
Even though we learned about the history and culture of Guatemala prior to going there, I did not understand it fully until I saw it firsthand. The biggest shock to me was the garbage. There is garbage everywhere. The only options for disposal are to burn it, which leaves much pollution in the air, or to dump it off a cliff. Seeing this way of garbage removal was truly unbelievable, I could not believe what I was seeing.
However, I do believe that Guatemala has a brighter future ahead of them with help from Guatemalan citizens and outside sources. I cannot wait to go back to Guatemala and Salud y Paz.
For any University students considering taking this Guatemala Public Health class, you absolutely should without hesitation. It truly does not matter what your major is; everyone can benefit from this class and experience. There are always a numerous amount of tasks that need to be completed at the clinic which requires help from a diverse group of people with different knowledge bases.
Not only did this experience prove to me that I want to work with children in my future, but I was able to learn and immerse myself in a new culture. This experience was humbling to say the least, which encourages me to go back to Guatemala and other developing countries to help be a part of the change. The motto of this journey was, “Be the change you want to see in the world,” and now I know how much I want to be a part of all the change that needs to happen worldwide.