A diligent team of seven college students took a week out of their summer break, boarded a plane, traveled more than 3,000 miles and landed on South American soil for one reason — to make a difference in the lives of nearly 600 Peruvian strangers.
But the Peruvians were not the only ones affected by the trip.
“This has been the most rewarding experience of my life,” said Chloe Hope, a Dacula resident and a biology major at the University of North Georgia Gainesville campus in Oakwood.
MEDICAL TRIP FUNDING
Hope was joined by six other students, who are part of the Medicine, Education and Development to Low Income Families Everywhere organization. MEDLIFE is present in more than 150 colleges and universities across the nation and has helped 150,000 patients in Latin America and Africa since 2005, according to its website, www.medlifeweb.org.
Seven UNG students — Hope, Cruz Mejia, Vanessa Cortez, Najah Davis, Connie Rodriguez, Christin Elliott and Jack Camp — wanted to be a part of that number. But before they could travel south of the border, they had to raise the funds for the trip. The catch was the club only had one semester to do it.
Lodging, transportation and food for the week cost $775 per person. And with only a week before their May 13 departure, the group collected just enough money for the trip — $5,500.
The students raised the money for the trip through events and various fundraisers, such as helping with 5-kilometer runs.
“We are very proud of that, because we are doing very well for a club that just started last semester,” Mejia said. “(The money) also provides funding for all expenses associated with the volunteering itself.”
Mejia explained the money also paid for professional doctors and nurses from the area to help with the project as well as purchased medicine and equipment.
And while the club paid the bill, each student paid for his or her own airfare, which cost most $950 each.
With financing taken care of, students focused on their tasks.
Luckily, with several native Spanish speakers on their team, communicating in Peru was not going to be an issue. Most people in Peru spoke Spanish, alleviating the need for a translator and making it easier to talk with the patients and doctors.
“It was important to have as many advantages on our side,” junior Cortez said.
The experience was eye-opening for several students who had never been on a mission trip. Cortez, 22, and her fellow companions quickly noticed the dissimilarities between their lives in Northeast Georgia and the lives of people in Mira Flores, Peru.
Many Peruvians lacked objects that are commonplace in Georgia, Cortez said.
The median household income in Hall County in 2014 was $51,036, according to U.S. Census Bureau. Most people living in Mira Flores earn around $250 a week or $13,000 in a year.
“That’s very sad, especially when you have a family,” Mejia said.
And the poverty was visible.
Hope said she observed most people carrying water up and down dusty hills to bring the contaminated water back to their homes for their basic needs.
The sight of people struggling with poverty struck Cortez hard.
“I’d say it was an overwhelming experience but not with a negative connotation,” Cortez said.
She noted it was difficult to understand “every nook and cranny” of the people’s cultures and traditions.
However, some things were familiar and provided a foundation for the UNG students to stand on — providing health care to people in need.
“Most of our students are trying to pursue a career in the medical field and a lot of them are currently working for NEGA Health System and volunteer at the Good News Clinics,” Mejia said.
From inside a mobile clinic, the students worked at several stations ranging from medical care and education to dental care and a pharmacy. The sights they encountered were rare for some to see.
“Many adults were unaware of basic hygiene practices, including dental care,” Hope said. “We are fortunate to have health care so readily available to us.”
During the week, students performed a range of duties. Some acted as interpreters, communicating with the residents to get vital signs and basic information such as their height and weight. Others helped prescribe medications and fill prescriptions.
A few students worked with a dentist, educating Peruvians on how to brush their teeth correctly and proper mouth care, no matter the age. A special zone was designated for giving out toothbrushes to children.
“When I worked at the toothbrushing station, teaching children how to brush and floss and applying fluoride to their little teeth, they were all so happy and excited to learn,” Cortez said.
Another educational area gave out information on sex education, protection, abuse and depression.
The payment given to the students was unlike any monetary amount in the United States.
The Peruvians had a “genuine happiness that Americans seem to lack,” Hope said.
The mobile clinics were located mostly in the mountainous areas of Mira Flores, which translates to “look at flower” in English, Mejia said.
“It has a lot of flowers and it’s very safe,” he said.
But the “seemed to converse, laugh, and love as we do,” Hope said.
And “every community we entered was very thankful,” Mejia said.
The thankful attitude spread from the residents to the students.
“On our trip to Peru, I learned to be humble,” Cortez said, after arriving home and spending two weeks there. “When I came back to my sweet Georgia, it hit me how privileged I am.”