Leading by Example: Outreach Trip Addresses Health Disparities

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By Rosario Castañeda, Student 
Yale University & Students Rising Above

Maya Angelou once wisely stated that "When you learn, teach. When you get, give."

As a first-generation, low-income student, those words have special meaning to me. After receiving encouragement and guidance from family and mentors through the years, I looked forward to sharing their wisdom with others.

In my junior year of high school, I was accepted into the Students Rising Above (SRA) program. My SRA advisor assisted with the college application process and guided me through financial aid hurdles, so I could pursue my dream of achieving a college degree. SRA's continued mentoring has helped grow my academic and professional backgrounds. More importantly, it has also fostered a sense of maturity, curiosity, and responsibility in my personal development.

SRA encourages student involvement in campus-related extracurricular activities, and emphasizes volunteering as an excellent opportunity to "pay it forward." While at Yale, I became interested in Volunteers Around the World (VAW), a non-governmental organization dedicated to improving the standard of living for those that live in poverty-stricken communities. I began serving on the campus' VAW chapter board as a vice president of education and training. During my tenure I have helped successfully register our chapter as an official school group, in addition to keeping our organization focused on public health and humanitarian initiatives.

Medical Outreach Opportunity
When our VAW chapter learned of the medical outreach opportunities in Cusco, Peru, we decided to contribute and to positively impact the public health situation in this underserved area. This trip also meant a considerable amount to me personally because I would be forming connections and providing medical care to people who came from backgrounds similar to my parents and grandparents.

Planning for a trip of this caliber took about a year. Volunteers funded their personal travel and living expenses, in addition to providing money for doctors to go to the clinics and necessary medical supplies. To fund my portion of the trip, I got an on-campus job, took money out of savings, participated in fundraising opportunities, and received a travel grant from Yale to help offset flight and program fee expenses. But I still couldn't cover the entire cost of the trip.

I approached my SRA advisor and she suggested I develop a proposal to ask SRA to help minimize my funding gap. When I learned my proposal had been accepted and I would have the money to attend the outreach program after all, I was incredibly grateful! If SRA had been unable to provide financial assistance, I would not have had this incredibly enriching opportunity to serve.

Life-Changing Experience
Last month, 23 students and I traveled to the Cusco region in Peru. For two weeks, we provided medical assistance to communities and people who otherwise don't have access to potentially life-saving medical care and diagnoses. In just four days, we helped over 500 people!

The first week we set up a clinic that had four stations. One of the stations was a pharmacy where patients received free medicine after receiving a prescription from their doctor consultation. One day, a 12-year-old girl came in with her three-year-old brother to the pharmacy. I thought they had become separated from their parents in the clinic, only to find out they had come alone. I was shocked. She was so young and yet so grown-up because she has to be. I gave her the medications the doctors prescribed and explained how to use them, all while wondering if she would make sure the medicine was taken correctly.

Our VAW chapter also planned and implemented an "Education Day" in which we traveled to two different sites in the Cusco region to teach about health issues and promote awareness of various health topics. We also implemented long-term projects that will continue even after our departure. These included partnering with a distressed women's center to create important health lesson plans, and creating a medication database that helps analyze which medicines are most frequently needed by patients.

Continuing Momentum
These trips help people by providing them with the opportunity to talk to doctors and receive medicine to alleviate health issues (which are often too expensive and out of reach for the patients we saw). As important, they also establish a connection with the patients to provide an opportunity to implement long-term public health solutions in their homes.

This trip sparked a personal interest in finding ways to make medical care and health education resources accessible to other people, particularly in underserved areas. I will continue to develop my understanding of public health, and find outlets where I can contribute to outreach and improve accessibility to critical resources.

I am indebted to SRA for assisting me with the opportunity to participate in this incredible experience. I encourage people to find a passion, be it in health or not, and continually seek ways to contribute to communities in need. By teaching and helping others, we can reduce the gap in disparities and provide people with important, life-changing opportunities.

Gloria del Rosario Castañeda is a first-generation college sophomore at Yale University, where she is studying molecular, cellular and developmental biology with a neurobiology concentration. She serves on the board of Yale's Volunteers Around the World chapter, and is a member of Yale's Public Health Coalition and the Yale Medical Professions Outreach.