In celebration of Peace Corps week, Inventory and Volunteer Coordinator Matt Fuller reflects on his fast introduction to conditions in underserved communities, and the dedicated people who work in them.
Those who work in underserved countries know that even though you may start out with a plan, you never know how it will all unfold. On my first day as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Sausal (Peru), a town of about 3,000 people plunked into the middle of sugar fields, I decided to walk to the local health post and introduce myself. Halfway up the road to the health post, I began to see about ten of the local health post staff coming my way! We stopped when we crossed paths and after many impromptu introductions in the middle of the street, Paty, the head nurse, explained that the health post had organized an HIV/AIDS awareness parade with the local high school that day. And since I had come to visit the health post, I should come along with them.
When I entered the high school, I saw over 200 students organized into rows with hand-made signs promoting AIDS awareness, abstinence and condom use. Seeing that everything was set up, I figured that I wouldn’t be much use and thought to meet up with the health post staff at a less hectic time. I started to excuse myself and let the staff know I’d visit them tomorrow, when Dr. Julio interrupted with a somewhat teasing look in his eye.
“Hey Mateo – since you’re new here you should be up front with us holding the banner. That way, everyone in town will see who you are!”
At the time, I was the type of person who wades into things gradually – gets a feel for the situation before making a move. I wasn’t one for loud introductions, wasn’t clamoring to be the center of attention. But the health staff was already delighted with this moment both for its practicality (introducing the town to Mateo) and its potential for awkwardness. And on your first day, you want to make a good impression, right? So the doors opened and the parade was let out of the school and into the town, with a 6’2” tall and lanky gringo leading the way. While it was awkward and uncomfortable at the beginning (and the banner was heavy!), it wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought it was going to be. And it was an instant ‘in’ with the health post staff, who treated me to lunch afterwards.
One of the most important aspects of a Peace Corps Service is forming partnerships. These partnerships help volunteers build inroads into the community and help to ensure long-term impact and sustainability. Organizing a parade might seem like a small task, but it shows that the health post staff really wanted to work on community education and preventive health and not just stay inside their building. While leading a parade through town wasn’t necessarily how I thought I would start my Peace Corps service, it turned out great.
Working with the doctors and nurses in Sausal really showed me the dedication and vocation of health workers in underserved areas. They are often underfunded, over-worked and have few resources to do their job. For me, knowing first-hand the dedication and motivation of these health care workers makes my work at Global Links all the more fulfilling and meaningful.