For the past five years I have traveled to Guatemala to volunteer with Mayanza, a not-for-profit organization providing health education to school-aged children and mothers in Santiago Atitlán. When I started this effort, it was for me – to get away from my laptop, utilize my skills as a clinician and provide care to others; but now, I continue for them – to learn from and support the tenacious community that represents resilience and resourcefulness.
My annual trips feed my passion to support health – and are constantly teaching me lessons that lift me up even when I’m back home. Here are a few things I’ve learned that help me be a better professional:
1 – Change comes from listening. My calling as a nurse leads me to observation, advocacy and problem solving. During my visits, I have led needs assessments and conducted discussion groups to engage with school leaders and mothers to inform programming. The biggest payouts are seeing how Mayanza’s tailored programs are appreciated by the community. Yet, most affirming is hearing from school principals: “thanks for taking time to listen to us and hear our needs.”
2 – Health concepts require clear definitions. A profound lesson was provided when asking mothers about their health goals and barriers. To my surprise, the most common answer was: “what is health?” This was not an error in methods, or a translation breakdown; it is an important question the community forces us to reflect on. It reminds me that health is not a singular goal or defined by one core definition. It is constantly evolving and made up of countless qualities and inputs. As I continue to promote health with the children and families of Santiago Atitlán, I must be vigilant in flexible thinking and clear about how I define and communicate about the broad concept of health.
3 – Systems drive health outcomes. Malnutrition, infectious disease, and chronic illness are rampant in Santiago Atitlán. So are domestic violence, substance abuse, depression, and anxiety. It is insufficient to address health problems in isolation of the economic and social structures that surround them. Our efforts have expanded to include Mayan-led conversations about mental health and reproductive rights, and our mothers’ groups provide peer support that are building self-confidence and healthy relationships that can lead to economic self-sufficiency.
4 – Working together is the only way forward. The health fairs hosted during our latest visit were emblematic of the virtuous cycle that comes from working together. Graduates of our Healthy Mothers program and student ambassadors led education stations about oral and hand hygiene, taught about iron-rich foods to mitigate anemia and ran physical fitness sessions. The women were confident to share their knowledge with peers and proud to create positive changes for health-promoting behaviors. It was humbling to notice how learning thrives when the community is engaged in the local Mayan dialect, Tz’utujil.
5 – Cultural appreciation brings affinity. My orientation before the first trip set my expectation that we visit a community that is truly in need, yet is a place that is magical with rich traditions, warm hearts, and lush landscapes. So, I was not surprised to fall in love with the people, the place, and their traditions – and I enjoy each return visit as a much-needed refuge that puts wind in my hair from the back of a truck and reignites my curiosity and compassion.
Promoting health and advocating for others are core to who I am, as well as my vocation. I feel privileged to visit the community of Santiago Atitlán to have a direct, positive impact on the health of others. And while that is meaningful and necessary, the trips also remind me that system change promotes greater health outcomes – and those changes only come from careful listening and collaboration with people in their communities.