Tag Archives: community health

Meet our newest volunteer, Sarah!


Sarah Lewis is from New Jersey and a recent graduate of The College of New Jersey with a degree in Psychology and minor in Public Health. She intends to pursue an advanced degree in Public Health (eventually), but meanwhile she’s volunteering with Voces y Manos! Get to know her below.  

What inspired you to work in Guatemala, and specifically with Voces y Manos? I am very passionate about global social justice and public health issues and intend to study these issues in the future. I also have previous volunteer experience in Haiti, Nicaragua, and Peru. I worked with an amazing organization in Nicaragua called Outreach360, so I searched for another organization with similar values. I loved that Voces y Manos supports youth in creating their own projects, rather than sending in volunteers to create projects. No one knows the community better than a member of the community themselves.

How did you get involved with Voces y Manos? I searched “public health internships Guatemala” on Google and went immediately to the sixth or seventh page – I wanted to work with a smaller, yet well-established organization. I found Voces y Manos’ website and loved their values and type of work. I applied, and now here I am!

What do you do when you’re not volunteering? I am obsessed with yoga! I’ve been practicing for the past five years and teaching for three. If you can’t find me, I’m probably in a handstand somewhere. I also enjoy reading and writing.

What’s next after Voces y Manos? After spending a week home in New Jersey, I will be traveling to Chile to teach English with the government-run program English Opens Doors until the end of November. I also applied to the Peace Corps and, if all goes well, would be leaving next February for the Dominican Republic as a literacy volunteer. If not, I’ll see where life takes me.  

What would you tell someone who’s thinking about volunteering abroad? Do your research! There are a lot of organizations out there, and they vary in quality. First, identify your own values. If you don’t know much about international non-profit organizations, read about them! Here’s a great place to start. I also recommend the book A Path Appears by Nicholas Kristoff and Carol WuDunn. Then – this is the research part – find an organization that matches those values and holds themselves accountable for their work. Great organizations can be tough to find, but it’s important if you really want to make an impact with your work. Once you’ve chosen an organization, go for it!! Traveling abroad can seem scary, but it’s rewarding and transformative. And once you travel abroad, go with the flow. Life as a volunteer abroad is anything but predictable.


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Newsletter is officially done!

Great news: Our newsletter is officially done! There are exciting updates about our project, and more ways to support us.

A pdf version is available here:

2011 Newsletter

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Listening to the Community

This past summer, Voces y Manos partnered with the USF School of Nursing and ASECSA (Asociación de Servicios Comunitarios de Salud) in Guatemala to organize community health members in Rabinal, Guatemala, illuminating the health needs of the community. The result was a framework for transforming findings into action.

Citizens of Rabinal are in a more dire need of health care than ever before. Over the last few years, a non-governmental organization called Funcafé provided health care on a rotating basis to the various communities in the surrounding area. With this service, people in Rabinal got a medical visit once a month. Unfortunately, this program was recently eliminated due to lack of funding.

Additionally, Centro de Salud, the community clinic in the center of town, is largely unaffordable for most patients and medical supplies are very low. Given that these services have been affected so greatly by a lack of funding, Voces y Manos team wanted to see how our team could have the biggest positive impact on health for those living in Rabinal.

Recognizing this pressing need for health care, we combined forces with Linda V. Walsh, a professor from the University of San Francisco School of Nursing, to hold community-wide health assemblies in Rabinal. The purpose of these assemblies was to identify critical gaps in the health system and to determine how Voces y Manos can partner with local organizations to fill these gaps.

“The goal that Michael, Josh, Jessica, Amy and I had was to really listen to what the community members identified as health needs that Voces y Manos could possibly address in a partnership with them,” said Professor Walsh.

Furthermore, Voces y Manos wanted to ensure that a health partnership with the people of Rabinal would be culturally relevant and appropriate, benefiting all those involved.

“All too often, well-meaning people go into the developing world and do their own assessments, then tell the communities what interventions the visitors think are needed,” Walsh said.  “ Who knows better about perceived needs than those who live and work in a community?”

With this in mind, Voces y Manos welcomed a wide variety of perspectives, including both lay health workers as well as public health professionals. To this end, Voces y Manos enlisted the help of ASECSA to recruit health promoters, traditional midwives, doctors, nurses, and nutrition specialists from throughout the region.  While perspectives differed in many regards, a common theme identified was the dramatic impact of budget cuts on community health.  Given the severity of these cuts, all assembly participants recognized the increased the need for traditional medicine.

“What came across very strongly in both the community members’ group and the agency participants’ group was that the current economical forces prevent individuals from having access to even the most commonly used pharmaceutical agents,” Walsh said. “A return to traditional Mayan medicine reflects respect for the non-Western medicine approach to health and healing, and also provides a cost effective way to prevent and treat disease.”

Now that the assembly findings have been compiled, Voces y Manos turns its attention to developing projects that will address the identified needs. In December, the Voces y Manos team will return to Rabinal to resume dialogue with assembly participants. First, the assembly participants will reconvene to review key findings from the assemblies. Next, they will brainstorm viable solutions. Finally, a small subgroup of the participants will form a local community advisory board that will chart a 4-year plan for creating long-term community health care solutions that will be culturally relevant to Rabinal.

“I am a believer that community members are the experts in identifying needs and potential interventions that would be in concert with the beliefs and rituals of the culture,” Walsh said.

Voces y Manos also hopes that by involving the community in creating this new program, we have created a sustainable option for health care in Rabinal.

“Another factor in including the community from the beginning is that the community response is essential for sustainability of initiatives,” Walsh said. “There is a history of numerous initiatives that end up being short-terms fixes without any follow through due to lack of acceptability in the community and/or lack of economic sustainability.  This approach is also necessary in the developed world.  Particularly in communities representing vulnerable populations, community involvement is essential for bringing about necessary change.”

Although the eventual outcome of these meetings is yet to be determined, Voces y Manos is confident that by involving the community at each step of the way, the end result will truly meet the needs of the local community and set the foundation for sustainability.

-Allison Van Vooren











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Global Health Interest Night at UCSD

On October 17th, Voces y Manos partnered with the International Affairs Group, Student Sustainability Committee, and the UCSD School of Medicine’s Global Health Initiative to coordinate the Global Health Interest Night.

The event is part of Voces y Manos’ commitment to create learning opportunities with a people-centered approach to Global Health for students in higher education. We first developed the idea as a way to help create greater collaboration between student groups, and to show students the growing academic and service opportunities available at UCSD.

Various global health-related student organizations, professors, the Global Health minor, and the UCSD School of Medicine’s Global Health Initiative were excited to participate. The International Affairs Group provided the facility and logistical coordinating.

It was a huge success! Students packed out the venue, nine student organizations participated, and there were presentations by the Global Health Minor program, Dr. Maria Zuniga from the Global Health Initiative, Dr. Yarris (a visiting professor from UCLA), and the nurse from the travel clinic at Student Health Services. Fair Trade coffee and tea, and catering were provided through the Food Co-Op. It was inspiring to see so much passion for Global Health from such a diverse group of people and organizations.

This was a great way to start the year for our organization. Not only was it a great event, it gave us a chance to build key relationships with other groups. Our interns are now re-starting the student organization at UCSD, and it is exciting to see all the ideas and opportunities available for the coming year.

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Meet our interns!

We are excited to introduce our Voces y Manos intern team!

Our Voces y Manos Global Health Internship program has just started. This is a unique opportunity for students in the San Diego area to learn about global health issues, while gaining practical experience working with a nonprofit. Interns play an integral role in solidifying our organization’s core programs and building its future. Meet our amazing interns:

Isela Martinez

Voces y Manos Intern

Isela Martinez is a senior at UCSD pursuing a B.A. in International Studies and a minor in International Migration. Her focus on Latin America stems from her roots and her experience as an immigrant to the United States with her family as a child. Her need to understand why her own and so many other families migrate around the world have made her eager to learn more about Latin America. She is especially interested in development and indigenous issues. Her wish is to put to practice what she has learned at UCSD, but more importantly to make a difference. Being part of Voces y Manos is a perfect opportunity to help; to have a real-life, close look at the issues that matter the most to people and that make it possible for the social, cultural and economic development of an entire country.

Nicolette Kalic

Nicolette Kalic is a senior at University of California, San Diego with a major in Communications while also taking on a minor in Global Health.  She has always been passionate about the human body and grew up thinking she would one day become a surgeon. However, over the course of the years, she has found her true calling lies within the realm of global public health and all that it encompasses. After returning from her summer at the Yale School of Public Health interning for a NIDA funded HIV study, she has been itching to continue her role in the public health community. She is thrilled to be part of the Voces Y Manos team as a student intern, and looks forward to learning more about the culture and history of the populations we are aiming to help!

Allison Van Vooren

Allison Van Vooren is a third year Human Biology major and Global Health minor at UCSD. As a bilingual San Diegan, she is very passionate about the Latino populations around the globe. She loves learning about indigenous medical traditions and their impact on the local communities. Particularly, she is interested in the social and structural elements of health, especially involving infectious diseases like tuberculosis, cholera, and dengue fever. One day she hopes to work with disenfranchised populations as a pediatrician, creating trust and building relationships to improve the health of the community. She is thrilled to be a part of the Voces y Manos team and can’t wait for the opportunities ahead for Rabinal!

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Board of Directors

One of the requirements of becoming an official 501c3 non-profit is to have a Board of Directors to guide us toward our vision, as well as help with the practical operating and funding of the organization. We have a group of dedicated volunteers from a variety of backgrounds that have generously volunteered their time to be a part of our Board of Directors.

Meet our BOD here!

On Monday, September 19th, we held our first official BOD meeting. During the meeting, members were voted in, the bylaws were adopted,  our financial decision-making policy was solidified, and the committees were able to give updates. This is an exciting update- it means we are one step closer to getting our 501c3 status from the IRS! We are currently an incorporated California nonprofit, but need the 501c3 status so supporters can make tax-deductible donations directly to us. All of the proper paperwork is now in so it’s just a matter of waiting for waiting for approval from the IRS.

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Meet the summer 2011 volunteers!

Meet the volunteers for the 2011 summer Guatemala trip!

Sunthree Acosta

Summer 2011 Rabinal VolunteerSunthree Acosta is a Chicana educator who teaches Intensive Literacy and Reading Enrichment in South Central Los Angeles, the land saw her grow into a passionate woman.  As a Chicana who grew in Watts, Sunthree overcame many boundaries to earn a Bachelors Degree of Arts in English and Master’s Degree in Education from the University of California, Los Angeles.  From her small classroom, she advocates for social justice and educational equity for people of color. She eagerly took the opportunity to travel with Voces y Manos to Guatemala in an effort to gain a personal understanding regarding the indigenous roots of her people.   Although Sunthree arrived in a different country than the land that gave birth to her ancestors, Mexico Querido, this adventure has expanded her knowledge about the indigenous suffering, deculturalization, customs, beliefs, and resistance.  Sunthree expresses that she is forever grateful with the people in Rabinal for opening their homes and hearts, as these actions enable her to learn so much regarding the indigenous struggle for social justice.

Amy Yam

summer volunteer medical student guatemalaAmy Yam’s history with Voces y Manos began in 2008 as an undergraduate student at the University of California, San Diego.  Her previous volunteer work in Honduras, combined with her interest in health, drew her to classmates Michael Bakal and Jessica Nicholas to form the organization.  Amy’s first experience working in Rabinal with Voces y Manos not only affirmed her desires to stay actively involved in the organization, but also to pursue a career in medicine.  Now as a medical student at the Medical College of Wisconsin, she has remained an active member of the Voces y Manos Executive Committee as well as an active participant of the summer volunteer program in Rabinal.  This is Amy’s third time in Rabinal, and she is ecstatic to return to the communities that Voces y Manos serves.


Cynthia Garcia

summer 2011 volunteer teacherCynthia first heard about Voces y Manos two years ago and was immediately interested in volunteering with the project’s youth component.   However, it was not till this summer that she was able to travel to Rabinal, Guatemala with the rest of the Voces y Manos team.  Cynthia is an Indigenous Chicana educator from California, where she grew up in a socio-economically disadvantaged community.   She is not foreign to the rural life and its hardships, she  grew up in a small pueblo in Guerrero, Mexico and has been able to relate and identify with the youth’s experiences in Rabinal.   Cynthia is thrilled and feels blessed to have had the opportunity to  travel to Guatemala  and learn about the history, culture, struggles and the people’s continued resistance against oppressive conditions.  Cynthia has found a home and a family here and is greatful to her host family.    She is inspired by the people of Rabinal to continue her work as an indigenous educator in California.


Josh Hoeger

Josh medical student volunteer guatemalaJosh is a 23 year old, once-and-future student with a penchant for the finer things in life (a bowl of atol de helote and a stick of sugar cane). He joined Voces y Manos in the summer of 2009, and has spent the last two years learning about health in the underserved and marginalized communities of Rabinal. During this time, Josh has been deeply inspired by the Guatemalan health care workers and students with whom Voces y Manos collaborates, and he is dedicated to continuing efforts to improve the quality of life in Rabinal.

Josh is currently applying to medical school and is becoming accustomed to working on applications by candlelight, during Rabinal’s frequent power outages. Despite this being his second Voces y Manos bio (and second summer working in Rabinal), he is still unused to writing in the third person.

Michael Bakal

volunteer educator guatemalaMichael Bakal first travelled to Rabinal in 2007 as a volunteer with the American Jewish World Service.  The opportunity to work with and learn from the students, teachers, and staff of Fundación Nueva Esperanza was a transformational experience for him, so much so that inspired him to co-found Voces y Manos with Amy Yam and Jessica Nicholas in 2008 during their senior year at UC San Diego.

Since 2008, Michael has acted as the lead instructor for Voces y Manos’ youth leadership program, and overseen the growth and development of Voces y Manos’ scholarship program.  In 4 years of close collaboration with Fundación Nueva Esperanza, Michael has seen the scholarship grow from a 5-student pilot initiative to a comprehensive scholarship program reaching 33 students.

Outside of his work with Voces y Manos, Michael spent the past two years working as a high school biology teacher at Animo Locke #3 Charter High in Watts, California.  At Locke #3, Michael worked with an inspiring team of social justice educators, and amazing students.  Although it was a difficult personal decision to leave the Locke #3 community, Michael resigned from Locke in 2011 in order to be able to work full time for Voces y Manos.

Michael holds a Master’s Degree in Education and Bilingual teaching certificate from UCLA.  In his free time, Michael enjoys playing basketball and the conga drums.

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Week 3: The Mayan Ceremony, and Starting to work on Community Projects

Our third week in Rabinal began with a traditional Mayan Ceremony.  At 5:00 AM on Sunday, July 10th, our group of 5 volunteers, 10 current youth participants, and 8 former youth participants met in the dim lighting of Rabinal’s plaza to ascend to the sacred site of Kaj’yup, where the ceremony was to take place.

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Voces y Manos students and volunteers together at the top of Kaj Yup

After an hour of hiking, we arrived our destination, where, according to legend, Rabinal Achi (the Patron saint of Rabinal) fought off Varon Qui’che (the patron saint of the Qui’che people) gaining the Achi people their independence.  To this day, Kaj’yup remains one of the most important cultural and spiritual locations in Rabinal.  For me, the Mayan ceremony is always a special part of our program, as it is one of the few times when past scholarship recipients and current participants can get together to motivate one another to continue their academic pursuits and affirm their commitments to betting their communities.

Once our entire group had arrived the top of the mountain, our guide, Profesor Manuel, led us to the top of a small pyramid.  There, he lit a few candles to request permission for us to start the ceremony, then addressed the group: “It is privilege for me to be back here with you all.  Many of you I know because I was your teachers, for others, it is a privilege to meet you for the first time.  I would like to invite everyone to be fully present in this ceremony.  Being present does mean only being here physically, but also to be present mentally, even though it is only 6:00 in the morning.”

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Josh Hoerger and Cynthia Garcia listening to Professor Manuel as he discusses the Mayan ceremony

Manuel went on to explain that the Mayan Ceremony is not a religious ceremony but a spiritual one, and he welcomed people of all different faiths to fully participate in the event.  For the next hour, Manuel explained to the students about the various Nahuales, guardians that comprise the Mayan Calendar.  Embedded in his descriptions were countless life lessons: Appreciation for what one has in life, respect for nature, the importance of community, and the necessity to maintain and develop one’s cultural identity.

As the ceremony drew to a close, I looked into the faces of each of the students who were present, and felt a great sense of gratitude for the community that we have developed over the past four years.  Represented in our group were students from all four years of the program: some who are on the verge of graduating, others who are just beginning their careers in higher education.  All the students are united by a vision of bettering their communities through education, and direct service to their communities.

This unity, and this vision of building community carried over into the next week.  It was with a mixture of nervousness, and excitement that students received the news that in week 3, they would begin the process of developing community projects.  On Monday, we trained students in how to conduct interviews, and on Tuesday, 2-person teams of students dispersed throughout the city to interview the various organizations involved in health promotion in Rabinal.  Initial nervousness was overcome when students were welcomed by organization representatives.  Immediately following the interviews, many of the students began thinking about the types of community projects they might want to undertake, and which organizations they might turn to for support.

The following day, Wednesday, teams of students travelled to their home communities identify crucial community health needs, and the assets they can utilize within their communities to address these needs.  Conducting interviews with their fellow community members, students were truly in their element.  Many of the students spoke to their fellow community members in Achi, translating for us volunteers after each interview.  Neighbors, friends and family members welcomed the students into their homes, and delighted in the fact that these youth were taking proactive measures to address the community’s most pressing needs.

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Students Maynor & Mardoquello take off for their community interviews in Nimacabaj

As the students were preparing for their own community projects by listening to the perspectives of community members, so too are we preparing for our next phase of engagement in health promotion.  As we have discussed below, this year marks a turning point in the work of Voces y Manos, as we temporarily suspend our direct health programs (the community health fairs) to first listen to the voices of community members and partner organizations, in an effort to guide the future directions of our work.

When we were not working with the youth, we have been working closely with our partner organization ASECSA to lay the framework for the “Listening to the Community Assembly”, scheduled to take place next week.  In this assembly, health promoters, and traditional midwives, nursing students, and doctors, youth leaders, and community elders, will come together to share their perspectives on health in Rabinal.  We do not know what will be the outcome of these assemblies, but we are excited to start the process, and eager to put into practice one of the key lessons we have been emphasizing with our students: before undertaking any initiative to promote health, one must begin by listening to the perspectives of community members.

Written by Michael Bakal

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Michael Bakal instructs students on their community projects

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Sunthree Acosta and Michael Bakal working with their student pair, Benjamin & Glenda

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Amy Yam works with her student pair, Mardoquello & Maynor, on a reforestation project

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Cynthia visits the Biotopo de Quetzal (a national park dedicated to the national bird of Guatemala)

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Volunteers planning their lesson plan for the day

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Lasting Impacts from Week Two

This is how I knew Maynor Rocael last year:

 guatemala tonsilitis

Our introduction was brief, as Guillermo (the former director of La Fundación Nueva Esperanza) had simply brought him to show us the status of his tonsils.  I remember he was a shy, quiet boy who smiled politely as Guillermo raved about how great of a student he was and how he had been in a great deal of pain for months.  Yet if you were to ask me last year who Maynor was, my description of him would not have extended past his medical condition.  

 This is the Maynor Rocael I know now:

 guatemala youth education

I was thrilled to see Maynor in our classroom on the first day of lessons, beaming as he sat there with the rest of our scholarship students.  Voces y Manos had raised enough funds last year to pay for his surgery, yet I never had the chance to personally follow up with him.  Having the privilege of getting to know Maynor through our youth scholarship program, I can now tell you much more about him than merely what his tonsils looked like.  Over the past two weeks, I have seen how deeply he cares about his culture, his environment, and his classmates.  He is undoubtedly one of the most enthusiastic participants in our program.  Building my relationship with him as well as the rest of the students in our program has been by far the highlight of my summer. 

Needless to say, our youth scholarship program has been running fantastically.  After covering the topic of interculturality with the students last week, we moved on to discussing colonization and its effect upon various Indigenous groups in the Americas.  Our most poignant session occurred last Tuesday, when we took a field trip to the local museum dedicated to the victims of the massacres that took place in Rabinal during the 1980s at the height of Guatemala’s civil war.  Students personally identified how their community’s history had been shaped by colonization on a cultural, ecological, political and social level.  Moreover, it made a profound impact on all of us volunteers as we saw our students identifying pictures and telling stories of their own family members featured in the museum.  The theme of colonization was followed by an all-day leadership training, where students learned what makes a leader successful and examined how participatory community leadership was exercised in Sipakapa,Guatemala against an invading mining company 6 years ago.  Finally, our week was closed with a traditional Mayan ceremony held at daybreak on the sacred grounds of Kaj’Yuup (located at the top of one of the tallest mountains in Rabinal).  We are excited to finally begin placing these lessons into the context of community projects that students will be conducting this summer.

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Student Mardoquello wanders through the museum dedicated to victims of the massacres that took place in Rabinal during the 1980s

Aside from working with the youth, this week was most significant for me in terms of planning our health project.  Each year that Voces y Manos has been in Rabinal, we have worked with local organizations to put on at least one health fair that distributes both curative and preventative health services to communities with limited to no access to health care.  Intending to carry on with this tradition, as Josh had mentioned last week, we were hit hard after learning that Funcafé, our main curative partner organization, had left Rabinal entirely.  Furthermore, the lack of governmental funding allocated to El Centro de Salud (the main health center in Rabinal) has caused resources to become extremely scarce.  Given that our major contacts for coordinating a curative health fair have essentially vanished from the area, and given that other local organizations have taken on a greater role in providing preventative health services for communities in Rabinal, it seems as if a health fair isn’t practical or even feasible for Voces y Manos this year.  This decision was extremely difficult for us to make as an organization, but we must respect the changes that arise in Rabinal and remain dynamic in designing of our health projects in order to best serve the needs of the community.

 At first, letting go of the health fairs affected me on a very personal level.  My identity with Voces y Manos began in 2008 when our major project was essentially only health fairs.  The experience I had that particular summer was extremely inspiring and played a strong part in my decision to pursue medicine.  Yet as Voces y Manos has matured over the past few years, our mission as a health organization has become more centralized around addressing the root causes to medical problems in Guatemala, which ultimately stem from poverty and oppression.  While a project such as health fairs does provide important curative and preventative services to many on the one day of the year it takes place, it ultimately does not make an impact in a broken health care system that people suffer through year-round.  Thus in order to truly impact health within Rabinal, we believe our work should be focused on constructing programs rather than completing projects.  That is to say, Voces y Manos recognizes it is only through sustainable, long-term investments in the community that such health disparities can be overcome. 

Given our decision to not continue with the health fairs, my reflections this week have been consumed by where we, as a health organization, stand within Rabinal to make a meaningful impact.  To start, we need to have a comprehensive understanding of what health services are being provided by which organizations.  Josh and I plan to observe as many events as we can this summer to get a first-hand glance of how exactly these projects are being implemented.  We began this process last Wednesday by accompanying a nurse from organization Fundameno as he saw patients from the community of Nimacabaj at the Puesto de Salud (the community health center). We plan to visit more Puestos de Salud with Fundameno later this month, as well as observe Fundameno’s trainings given to health promoters from various communities. 

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Josh Hoerger riding in the back of a pick-up truck after visiting the Puesto de Salud in community Nimacabaj

It is only after we fully understand how health care is being conducted in Rabinal that we can then begin thinking how Voces y Manos could possibly fit into the picture.  Our next step in determining an appropriate health program for our organization to implement will be listening to the concerns and desires of the community.  This summer, we will have the privilege to work with Dr. Linda Walsh, a professor at the University of San Francisco School of Nursing, who will be leading focus groups to gather these comments in Rabinal from various community members.  I am eager to hear these responses, which will ultimately shape a health program that best suits the needs of the community.

Overall, last week’s critiques and decisions regarding our organization’s mission for community health was extremely invigorating for me as a volunteer.  I feel very fortunate to be a part of a group that is constantly evaluating itself in how it can best support the people with whom it works.  The fact that we are willing to sacrifice projects we may feel very comfortable in executing, such as health fairs, so that we remain flexible towards the ever-changing needs of the community highlights what is truly special about Voces y Manos.  This is my third summer returning to Rabinal, and already I can honestly say that this has been my best experience with Voces y Manos so far.  My reflections and participation in this organization have shown me how much I value working as an activist for community health, which I know will ultimately influence my career as a physician.

 Written by Amy Yam

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Leadership Retreat: Voces y Manos volunteers pictured with current and past participants of the youth scholarship program

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Volunteer Cynthia Garcia discusses the impact of colonization after showing students video clips from El Norte

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Volunteer Amy Yam steps in to work with students at La Fundación Nueva Esperanza on a landscaping school project

Volunteer Sunthree Acosta leads a dicsussion on the effects of globalization in the Americas
Volunteer Michael Bakal rests with students after a long hike up to Kaj’Yuup
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Returning to Rabinal

It’s easy for me to get caught up in the beauty of Rabinal, Guatemala.  The vibrant marketplace, the humble bystanders that wish you good morning as you pass by, the soft, melodious beats of the marimba floating in the air, the lush hills and vast cornfields that encircle the center of town… It had been two years since I had left this special community, and upon returning to Rabinal this summer, I fell right back into the colorful culture.  It was amazing to feel welcomed again by the smiling faces of the community and see how motivated everyone was to work with Voces y Manos.  Although this year I was only able to stay in country for two weeks, I had an incredible time preparing the health fairs and youth scholarship program.  Seeing these projects move into full effect, I left Rabinal once again on an incredibly high note.

On the plane ride home, however, my feelings started to change as I began reading “Memorias de las Masacres de Rio Negro” by Jesús Tecú Osorio, a survivor of the massacres that occurred in Rabinal during the Guatemalan Civil War in the 1980s.  Although I had been previously aware of Rabinal’s history, reading his personal experience was the most intimate, thorough, and uncensored perspective of the war I had ever received.  His vivid descriptions of the slavery, torture and murder that took place had a profound effect on me.  I came back from Guatemala suddenly with an intense anger for what had happened to Rabinal.  I was confused by how I could feel so positive while in country, and at the same time, know of the brutality that took place, and see the current afflictions of extreme poverty as a result of this tragic history.  Why did I tend to paint this wonderful picture of Rabinal for myself?  Was I simply looking through rose-tinted glasses at the community?  Should I be feeling guilty for feeling the way I feel?  These are questions that to this day I continue to struggle with as I reflect upon my experiences in Rabinal.

Nevertheless, as conflicting as they may be, I know that these feelings altogether compel me to remain involved with Voces y Manos.  This organization allows me to channel my passions constructively toward projects that seek to establish a more just society.  I have a tremendous amount of respect for the people of Rabinal- for what they have gone through, for what they currently face, and for what they are determined to improve in their community.  Through the adversities, they have developed into an even stronger and more empowered society, determined to preserve their indigenous culture and abolish the health and economic disparities they face.  It is through their struggle that the true beauty of Rabinal shines.  It has been a privilege to work in solidarity with the community, and through Voces y Manos, I am determined to continue growing with Rabinal to achieve these goals.

~Amy Yam, 1st Year Medical Student at Medical College of Wisconsin

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