Dr. Emily Harrison, executive director of Shoulder to Shoulder, our current poverty and health beneficiary, sent us an update about what Shoulder to Shoulder has been up to in Honduras.
It would certainly be easier to describe Shoulder to Shoulder’s partnerships with rural communities in Intibucá, Honduras, if our work fit into a neat, tidy package. Yet if fulfilling Shoulder to Shoulder’s mission was neat, tidy, and easily summarized, would we truly be meeting the needs of our communities?
Imagine trying to do a traditional 20-second “elevator speech” that does justice to nearly 25 years of accomplishments in medical care and public health … and that also covers our work on all the factors that enable long-term well-being: good dentistry, clean water and sanitation, nutrition, and education, among others. Then, add to this the incredibly diverse community of people who enact the mission of Shoulder to Shoulder (“Hombro a Hombro” in Spanish) on a daily basis.
Our 110 employees on the ground in Intibucá are mostly from Honduras themselves: doctors and nurses and dentists, health educators and operations experts. Then, hundreds of volunteers each year travel via partnerships with U.S. universities and medical groups to supplement our employees’ work in two mini-hospitals and a half-dozen smaller clinics.
Many volunteers come for medical, dental, and nursing brigades and hike out to the most remote villages for a day to provide primary care and triaging; others provide additional advanced medical services at our clinics, give health talks, or offer professional development for our staff. For those who are medical, dental, and nursing students or residents, these trips add hands-on global health education to their portfolio of work.
Additionally, long-term volunteers from the U.S. travel each year to live in our communities and fulfill multi-month projects, often as an extended service experience between jobs or after college. Clearly, with only two full-time employees in the United States, and with so many volunteers supplementing our work, we make sure that nearly all of our resources go directly to services in rural Intibucá.
We serve approximately 50,000 people every year, so each week with Shoulder to Shoulder brings many incredible stories and moving accounts of work that makes a real difference for people who live on less than $1 a day. Here are just a few:
- Amy and Edwin, two long-term volunteers from the United States, have partnered with a local schoolteacher to launch “Las Marias,” a weekly class for students who were either not allowed to attend school past sixth grade (because their families needed them to work), or could not afford it. From the computer classes and English lessons offered at its inception, “Las Marias” has grown into weekend activities such as hiking and going to the river, leading self-confidence talks, and arranging health “chats” with some of our employees to help address issues these young people are experiencing. This community was chosen because of its high incidence of suicide, which the local teacher attributes to the general feeling of hopelessness “Las Marias” seeks to combat.
- Families who visit one of our clinics often build a deeper relationship with our volunteers and employees, many of whom offer additional help in their spare time. One family with three children who suffer from a fatal genetic disorder—and one child who has already passed away—has received extra follow-up home visits from brigades and check-ins from volunteers who hike out to see them, in addition to frequent care at our mini-hospital by medical director Dr. Rubén. In the words of one of our long-term volunteers, this “is not the most uplifting story but it is inspirational how much the clinic is working to improve their quality of life and help them despite their very difficult circumstances.”
- The last required grade for Honduran students is sixth grade, and in some of our communities, only 40 percent of residents make it past that level of education. For over a decade, Shoulder to Shoulder has raised money from U.S. donors for “becas”—scholarships that make middle and high school possible for 150 additional students a year in three of our communities. By covering the cost of books, uniforms, and transportation/housing for students who would otherwise need to walk multiple hours each way, we’ve helped hundreds of young people complete their dreams of a high school degree. This program made December’s high school graduation ceremonies in Santa Lucia and Magdalena especially meaningful for the Shoulder to Shoulder community: the top students in both towns’ graduating classes were Shoulder to Shoulder scholarship recipients.
- Finally, even our own employees’ stories are inspirational. One of our dental assistants is from a town outside our Santa Lucia clinic. She now lives in the clinic dormitory because she used to walk for more than two hours each day to work; without other transportation options through villages without roads, she still walks home every weekend. A long-term volunteer who knows her well says she is, “by far one of the most hard working and humble people in the clinic. She is the first medical staff member awake so that she can open the dental clinic early. She also wants to go to dental school but is from a very, very poor family so has continued working as an assistant for now.”
Shoulder to Shoulder’s work may not be easy to sum up in a few easy stories or phrases, but, clearly, neither are the deep needs that rural Honduran communities experience. This complexity is a rich part of our story—a nearly 25-year history of helping North American and Central American people work “shoulder to shoulder” to identify problems, propose solutions, and implement them together.