This month we’re featuring a post from our summer intern, Mackenzie Mixer, about her volunteer trip to Peru to work with community health workers in the country and the challenges people face to obtain health care in less developed parts of the world.
I recently traveled to Peru to educate community health workers living in the Amazon for a non-profit I volunteer for, CU Peru. I’m a graduate student in the Colorado School of Public Health, where my focus is global community and behavioral health. I’ve always been passionate about social justice and health disparities, and one reason I’m interning with Evolution is to learn firsthand about public health campaigns from people with so much experience with these initiatives.
In recent years I’ve been drawn to sustainable and scalable international development projects that work to equitize health outcomes in developing economies, so when the opportunity to volunteer for an organization that fulfilled both of those interests presented itself, I jumped in head first and offered 2 weeks of my summer to the program.
Before I tell you about my experience in Peru, I think it’s important to explain what a community health worker (CHW) is and why they matter.
In remote areas of Peru like the Amazon, there are no hospitals and few doctors or nurses. For many villages the closest medical facility is a 3- to 6-hour boat ride (not a speed boat- a motorized canoe). One person in a community is chosen to be the community health worker- they are the closest thing to a doctor that their community has. They attend our trainings to learn how to treat snake bites, diagnose pneumonia and recognize when someone needs to take the long journey to the nearest health post. Keep in mind, most of these health workers only have a 3rd-grade education.
I thought I was emotionally prepared for Peru. I’ve travelled and lived abroad before, and have a good idea of how moving certain experiences and landscapes can be on the psyche. I’ll be honest, I had no idea just how humbled I would be by the Amazon and those who call it home.
I have never been in the company of so many thoughtful, patient, and gentle people. The training was one experience, and a great one, but nothing can compare with the village visits. We travelled to the villages to learn more about their lives and other health care issues that villages face. Among the many things I learned (more on this later) is gratitude and love.
In one of the villages I stayed in, food was what you could forage or fish, the light of the sun let you see, the thatched roof shelter kept you dry, and a wooden boat let you take your kids to school or get supplies from a neighboring village. In a situation most of us would complain about, the residents simply smiled and expressed gratitude for the food they found.
They shared their pride in their hand-built shelters and their love for their families. Every action is purposeful in village life- something is always happening, but when you stop, even just for a second, you’re left with profound sense of gratitude and love for what you have and what you can do.
When the river floods a village and all the paths to the town are gone, parents take a boat to get their kids to school. I’m not sure I ever really understood how lucky I’ve been to have easy access to a school. We take for granted that we’re lucky to have a classroom and a teacher for each grade, a school that’s not flooded, a library, electric light read by at night, and transportation to and from school. Education is a human right, but it’s also a privilege and I am so grateful for all the opportunities I’ve had and continue to have to learn.
The Amazon was a humbling home. Travelling provides the opportunity to pause and reflect. Whether it happens in the moment or on your way home, you always consider what you need, and don’t need, to be happy. It forces you to focus on what you really value.
For me, I learned how much I value my life and all the people in it.