By Lawrence Loh, MD MPH
As our planning has begun for another trip down to La Romana this December, I am excited about the possibility and potential that is being demonstrated just by the people we’ve approached to volunteer and the communications we’ve had with other teams that have just been working down there recently. In every aspect of the trip, there is potential for improvement that drives the work of our long-time volunteers, as well as those who are joining us for the very first time – either in the community, or in the global health arena.
For those very first-time volunteers, the idea of delivering aid and making a difference appeals to them – it is, after all, the primary motivation for people to strike out of their comfort zone. They want to help. From my part, as one of the leaders taking them down there, I want to make sure that their experience is positive in the ways it needs to be positive. While we cannot guarantee it will be comfortable or luxurious (at all), I want to guarantee at the least their safety and security, so that they can take the opportunity to immerse themselves in a culture dissimilar from their own and learn about how they as an outsider can work with locals to make a difference. I also want to guarantee that their work is truly meaningful, part of a larger, broader time horizon, with the understanding that differences that may not be noticed now could certainly take months or years to come around – and that we’ll do our best to use technology and communications to learn about them when they do. The goal is to make the experience so positive and useful that they are willing to volunteer their energy and efforts to a future short term trip here or elsewhere.
For those more experienced volunteers coming to La Romana for the first time, I usually try to figure out their motivations from switching from other efforts. That usually helps to determine what needs to be done to fully tap their potential on the trip. Many bring fresh eyes from other communities abroad, or even from their own volunteer experiences here at home. They are filled with good ideas, alternatives, and suggestions from myriad ways of making a positive difference. In that sense, they represent a challenge to the inertia of trip after trip to La Romana; they represent potential improvements to the logistical, programmatic, and overall choices that we make. For them, they have a proven volunteer history and perhaps see La Romana as a chance to develop their skills further. That drive and interest represents untapped potential as well; depending on what they are looking to improve, they might easily drive a project that our team has interest in getting done, or bring their own ideas to the fore.
Finally, for those of our volunteers returning to La Romana, our potential is in the connections we make with the local community, the team, and the work there. We represent familiar faces to the local leadership – relationships based on years of trust and help, of commitment, and of a desire to do good. In that sense, the potential is limitless – in terms of working with the local leadership to identify priorities for our team, and deciding how to best use the team’s potential to achieve local goals – while keeping a longer-term view together through coordinating with the teams to follow us down. For returning volunteers, the potential lies in their existing relationships and understanding of the terrain – and having that drive the base work of the team, allowing other volunteers joining to learn and apply themselves as part of an ongoing understanding between the returning volunteers and the local leadership.
While we’ve just sent out the first e-mail, I am also struck by the potential that surrounds the team unit. We have proposed meetings and teleconferences coming up with other teams that work in La Romana. We’ve publicized our dates down with many of the other team leaders. We’re committed to working with other teams and the local leadership to figure out solutions for the hard questions that are faced there. In that greater picture, we see the transformative potential and opportunity in building week upon week.
Within each week, you have the newbies, the new-to-locale, and the old folks building on each other’s potential. In the synergy of each of those weekly groups, the idea of a wider community of groups committed towards longer-term solutions using collaborative tools widens. Now it no longer has to happen in a week – now, a new volunteer can join a team due to head out in eight weeks, and receive motivational thoughts and role discussion with teams that are already on the ground there (in addition to their own team as they plan through the site and through meetings.) Similarly, those who may not have been down for a few years but remain a source of information can stay remotely involved in helping new recruits and old folks with their wisdom.
In many ways, the idea of coordinating short term groups, each with their own volunteer categories as described above, perhaps represents an even greater potential to make a difference in both the local community, as well as for visiting participants, that we have only really begun to touch upon.
Dr. Lawrence Loh is Chief Medical Officer of The 53rd Week, and a physician in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.