How is it that 840,000 people worldwide die each year from a water-borne illness? Twice the population of the United States lives without access to water! I found myself sitting there, staring at these facts along with countless others, in awe. Just questioning how they can even exist while I am sitting there with a big bottle of clean water right in front of me. That's when I decided I needed to do something. I wanted to influence that statistic no matter how significant it may be. I needed to make a difference.

After extensive research, I decided that the most practical, efficient, and cost-effective water filtration system for development work in Tanzania were Bio-Sand filters; a cement structure with a hollow center made up of layers of sand and gravel. The dirty water is poured into the top of the filter, then travels down through the sand bed and passes through multiple layers of gravel. As dirty water works its way down the filter, pathogens and contaminants are removed. The clean water pours out through the plastic piping for a family to collect in clean containers with a lid and spigot that I will also be providing called a jerry bucket. These filters have proven to remove 90% of bacteria and 100% of parasites, resulting in significant improvement in the quality of the water making it safe to drink.

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Now all I had to do was fundraise! It started with three filters for three families, which turned into fifteen filters which eventually turned into thirty filters! Enough for two nursery schools and twenty four families! Over the course of two months, I had overwhelming support from friends, families, University MEDLIFE chapters, and two incredibly supportive and enthusiastic elementary schools, one of which was the school I had once attended as a child. Not only did these two elementary schools raise over $1,000 but they also wrote countless letters and cards to the children in Tanzania that would be receiving these filters.

Before I knew it I fundraised a total of $4,350! It was more money than I could have ever imagined! What a reflection of the people I am so blessed to have in my life as well as a beautiful portrayal of the compassionate and generous world we live in. Sometimes people just need an opportunity to make a difference, a little encouragement to help change the world, a sudden realization of how the other half of the world lives…

As the ball dropped in Times Square New Year's Eve, I was flying somewhere way above Africa on my way to Tanzania. Anxious, excited, nervous, overwhelmed, full of anticipation for the adventure that was soon to unfold and the lives I would soon be able touch in ways I never thought possible.

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After endless preparation, the first day of the project had finally come. A group of forty University of Delaware MEDLIFE volunteers, Amber, Neema, and myself arrived to the nursery school of a wonderful quant community known as Kilema. Working hand in hand with the families and teachers receiving the filters, we used posters and picture games the volunteers had created to educate the community members on the risks and dangers of the unsanitary water they are currently drinking. Most importantly, the family members were taught exactly how to use the bio-sand filter and how to maintain it properly, so it remains a sustainable water filtration solution for years and years to come! The community members raised their hands to ask questions, worked side by side with the volunteers figuring out the correct choices to the activities we presented, and discussed with their neighbors basic hygiene, sanitation, and the importance of filtering their water. It occurred to me in that moment that this was the very first time they had been taught these facts that many of us take for granted. Without understanding what is causing them to get sick, or what significance invisible pathogens floating in their water has on their health how are they supposed to be inclined to use a filter in the first place? To see first hand these individuals fully engaged and enthusiastic about learning reinforced my belief that education truly is the foundation of any attempt in resolving a given public health issues in our world.

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The following week Neema and I returned to Kilema along with the two technicians who had driven 11 hours to deliver and install the bio-sand filters. It was time for the very first  filter to be installed at the nursery school. All the teachers and parents crowded around entirely intrigued, watching as the technician carefully poured the layers of sand and gravel into the hollow cylindrical filter. Afterwards the technicians, Neema, myself and a group of the family members receiving a filter all piled into the truck full of the bio-sand filters, squished side by side. We arrived to Deo's home first, a tall quiet man with a infectious smile who shared a home with a wife, three children, and his mother. I was introduced to Deo's mother who sat on the dirt floor, surrounded by banana trees, missing one shoe, with a bible gently placed next to her. She took my hand in hers and softly began to pray. When she had finished, she looked at me and repeated “Ahsante” which means thank you over and over. The other family members joined together to help Deo and the technicians carry the heavy filter and materials through the path that lead to his home which was made of scraps of wood, dirt, cement, and cardboard. All the individuals receiving a filter helped each other one by one with each of the installations until they were all finished.

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Now, time to share my favorite day of the entire project. A few days after all of the filters were installed, we all returned to Kilema nursery school for a final inauguration and celebration of the filters. As some volunteers painted the water filters with the names of all the people who donated to the project, other volunteers spent time hanging up every letter and drawing made by the children at the elementary schools back in the United States on a wall in the classroom. After sharing everything with the children at the nursery, the volunteers and children sat around and wrote thank you letters and cards in return to the students back in the United States.  

It was that morning, as I walked around watching the filters being painted, the colorful pictures being hung on the wall, the giggles from the children writing cards, and the smiles coming from the family members and teachers that I realized I had done something immeasurable. I had changed their lives, I had successfully bettered the lives of 24 families and 2 nursery schools with the support of so many giving people that helped me make this possible.

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Joseph, an older man who had received a filter for his home, took my hand before I left, and told me “You may have two grandpas back in America, but you tell them that you now have one grandpa here in Tanzania”. I always try and read their faces, their minds. Some are friendly and appreciative while others are hesitant and skeptical. Often times I am left wondering; wondering the thoughts that are invisibly floating through our two minds, the unanswered questions lingering between our separate worlds, the curiosities that arise amid our unspoken lives.

Now, I know. I know that they care, that they appreciate our help. I have never been embraced, or thanked the way I was that final day by each person who benefited from this project. I would like to let them know that I was born into the life I was privileged with, that I had no choice just like they hadn't. However, it is because I recognize how fortunate and blessed I am that I am here, trying to understand and figure out their story, their life, their mystery.

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I returned to New York after 46 hours of travelling with a stack of cards from the nursery school children. The very next morning, I pulled up to my old elementary school with the stack in my hand and a big smile on my face. The principal went on the loudspeaker and told the children and teachers sitting in each and every classroom I was here! She asked me to read the letter I had written for the children over the loudspeaker. I shared with them not only my appreciation but the gratefulness of the children and their parents in Tanzania. What they had done as a school was not some invisible act of kindness, it was real and the children and families on the other side of the world will always remember them for what they had done. I hope children all over the world can be inspired to help others less fortunate and this project has inspired not only me, but I hope has touched the hearts of my friends and family as well as all of the children.  

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Along my journey, with each hand I have touched and every individuals life I have tried to help, ironically I am the one who has been changed. It has taken me countless of encounters and experiences to try and understand why I dedicate much of my life to helping others live a better quality life. The answer I seem to have been left with is one I am sure will continuously evolve overtime. What I do know is that I do it for both myself and for those I help. I set out to help individuals facing daily obstacles that seem to be unimaginable to many of us in an effort to satisfy my never ending desire of wanting to see the world through the eyes of others besides myself, to impact the lives of others, and to give back. I do it because I was born just like they were born; without preparation and without a say of where I would live, what family I would have, or how my life would be staged when I came into this world.

The truth is that these individuals living without access to basic needs such as water, or food, or medical care may be poor in wealth but they are certainly rich in humanity. They smile and laugh, they cry and they fight but despite our vast worlds apart we are all the same and in this cycle of life they are the ones who can use a little help this round. The reason I dedicate a part of my life to doing this work is because I believe in the faith of humanity. I believe that humans should help one another. All of us are just living and surviving one way or another but we all love and with that comes empathy; the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. So take a moment and truly believe in the faith of humanity because who knows, maybe in your next life you can be in their shoes…

 

December 15, 2015 2:04 pm

Intern Journal: Anna Folz

Written by Anna Folz

“The Two Most Important Days in your Life are the Day You Are Born and the Day You Find Out Why” - Mark Twain

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MEDLIFE means different things to everyone. For me, MEDLIFE was a door that opened into the “musts” of my life. In an essay by Elle Luna, she talks about how we all have our “shoulds” and our “musts”. Our “shoulds” tell us how we are supposed to think and indicate the preferred path we should follow, often the path most taken.

Our “musts”, according to Luna, are those aspects of our personality that we are born with. Everyone has a “must” and we have no control over these, they are simply part of us. “Musts” are those things that make our souls happy, the things we were put on this earth to do. Elle Luna states in her essay, “Should is how others want us to show up in the world. Must is who we are and what we do when we are our most authentic self.”

MEDLIFE provided me with an opportunity to work with the “musts” of my life.

Taking a gap year between high school and college helped me to identify my “musts” for the first time. During my gap year I spent several months working in a clinic for malnourished children in Guatemala. During this time I not only learned to love Latin American culture, Guatemalan traditions and how “weird” my traditions were to them, but quickly recognized the significant health problems facing Guatemalan women and children. I learned that so many health issues were the result of open fires being used for cooking. When I talked to mothers and asked how I could help they consistently responded with the same answer, “a new way to cook.” As a result of this, I knew that I needed to work with these women and help them find a better method of cooking so we could help improve the health of their families. This quickly became a “must” for me.

2Taking on your “musts” in life can be scary. They generally require you to go off and start your own ripple. They take courage and time. We hear over and over how we “should” do this, or we “should” do that. Discovering and focusing on our “musts” is hard sometimes, but very important. I discovered that providing alternative cooking methods to replace the open fires used for cooking definitely was a “must” for me. This “must” resulted in the development of an organization that raised money to provide 100 families in Guatemala with fuel-efficient stoves. This “must” also involved working with local communities and together providing educational programs on why fuel-efficient stoves were so important.

Together we also developed a nutritional program. Once we delivered the stoves to families in Guatemala and conducted both educational and nutritional programming, I was hooked, I needed to work further in this area. It became my “must”. When you find what it is that inspires you, your “must”, you don't ever want to stop doing it. You want to find places where you can work with others in focusing on your “musts”. For me, that was MEDLIFE.

MEDLIFE has opened so many doors for me. MEDLIFE has given me the chance to focus on projects that I “must” do. MEDLIFE walks hand in hand with communities, which is an approach that is so very important. MEDLIFE listens to members of the local communities, working with them to identify and solve problems. This is something at the heart of MEDLIFE, it is one of the organization's “musts”.

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MEDLIFE assists with projects that the communities want and need, not what MEDLIFE “thinks” they need. MEDLIFE has enabled me to continue to work on fuel-efficient stove projects, my “must”, but only when the communities we serve say “we want your help”. MEDLIFE is a one of a kind organization that allows everyone who works here to achieve what they want to achieve, to work on the “musts” that motivate them. MEDLIFE has given me the opportunity to continue to feed my “must”. There is absolutely nothing more that I could have asked for.

November 19, 2015 11:35 am

Intern Journal: Nick Bettencourt

Written by Nick Bettencourt

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When I think back on my first few months working with MEDLIFE, some experiences stick out more than the rest. Experiences that challenged me in new ways, or made me think about why I decided to spend a year doing this work. One of those experiences came a few weeks ago, while visiting a new patient with one of the nurses.

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As Carmen, Leigh and I rose higher into the community of Pamplona in a tiny mototaxi just barely wide enough for the three of us, I wondered what our next patient visit would bring. As we arrived to the address listed on our patient form, I noticed that something about the neighborhood seemed off. Although most of the houses in the area were nicely painted and appeared to be well maintained, there was one house at the end of the lot that stood out. This house seemed to be a patchwork of whatever the owners could find: wooden boards, political signs and anything else that most people probably throw in the trash. The house had no number, but after a quick process of elimination we realized that this structure probably covered our new patients. We knocked on the lopsided wooden door, and before long a string from the inside pulled it open. Carmen, the nurse, hesitantly mentioned our patient's name and the man responded “mi esposa,” that the woman was his wife. He said that she was at work, and offered to walk us down the street to the comedor where she spent her days cooking in exchange for food for her family. The main hobbled out of the house and led us down the street. Although he wasn't the patient we had been called for, the man's obvious and severely inhibiting limp made all of us wonder what this new patient was going to tell us.

He led us down the street to a staircase, and pointed to a building a little ways down the dirt road at the bottom of the stairs. He seemed to indicate that he would not be coming down the stairs with us, so we thanked him and walked over to the building. We walked up to the comedor and Carmen again mentioned our patient's name. This time we had the right place, and a 70-something year old woman ascended the stairs from the kitchen to greet us. We were there on a follow up visit, meaning that this woman had been treated at a mobile clinic, and identified as needing more follow up care. Although she had been chosen for follow up care due to difficulties managing diabetes, the real root of her health issues were much more severe.

The woman was hesitant to give us any information at first, but she eventually opened up and launched into her true story. She began by explaining that 10 years ago her husband and her daughter had been involved in a horrible moto-taxi accident. While this explained her husband's inability to walk normally or shake our hands, she explained that her daughter had suffered much more. The crash had left her daughter with severe brain damage which required heavy medication to accomplish even the most basic activities. Without this medication, her daughter could not get out of bed in the morning or speak more than her name. Although it allowed her to function normally, the medication sometimes caused her to have manic episodes. During one of these episodes, the daughter attacked her mother and ran away from home. Although we weren't told how long she was gone, the mother explained that while away from home the daughter was raped and had a child. Unable to care for her child, she eventually returned home so her sister could take over raising her son.

The woman continued to recount her tragic story, struggling through tears to continue drudging up these painful memories. Her friend, the owner of the comedor, spoke up for a moment while the woman took a break to compose herself. Her friend explained that since the accident the woman and her family had been stuck in a cycle of poverty with no way of escaping. She told us how they didn't have proper food, clothes or even a working telephone. She went on to say that the family had lost their health insurance 4 years ago, and despite their severe medical needs, no one in the family had seen a doctor since then. This is when we realized the impact we could have on this family. Carmen explained that on Monday she would walk the woman over to the next town, reinstate their health insurance and make doctors appointments for her and her daughter.

The dynamic of the situation changed right then and there. We were no longer pitying this woman who was recounting some of the darkest times of her life, but rather working with her to ensure that she didn't have to continue living in the shadow of the accident that had so drastically affected her family. As we got up to leave, I could see that the woman's face was different. Although I couldn't pinpoint the change in that moment, she seemed to finally be hopeful that her situation was going to get better. She had been stuck in the cycle of poverty and desperation for so long that even this simple act of aid had given her hope. We walked away from the comedor and Carmen began to explain the story and highlight some specific parts to make sure that we understood exactly what we going on. Before long, however, we were walking down the street in silence, each one of us wrestling with that we had just heard and trying to process the intense suffering that this woman had felt.

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When I am scared or nervous about a new experience, it can be easy to focus on the negative, and forget about the amazing people and opportunities in front of me. After being in Lima for almost 3 months, it was easy for me to only think about how I missed my life in the states: my family, my friends and everything I take for granted at home. This patient visit forced me to step back and realize the importance of what I am doing here. This woman had essentially given up on the healthcare system and thought that no one, not even us, could do anything to better her situation. Seeing the hope in her eyes as we left, however, made me believe in what MEDLIFE does and gave me a chance to see the real difference we can make in people's lives.  Although it can be hard at times, every once in a while something comes along that refocuses me, helps me remember why I am here, and allows me to see the real impact that our work can have on others.

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October 23, 2015 3:57 pm

Intern Journal: Edward Doherty

Written by Edward Doherty

Around 7 months ago I had to ask myself, why would I book a flight to somewhere 6,316 miles away, from home, to a place I've only seen on a map, a place I can't even speak the language?

If I could go back and reply to my past self while I puzzled over the idea, this would be the answer to my question.

unnamedFor the view.

unnamed 1For the friendships.

unnamed 1For the family.

unnamed 1For the cute

unnamed 1...and the not so cute.

unnamed 1 For the young.

unnamed 1For the old.

unnamed 1For the conversation.

unnamed 1To learn something new.

unnamed 1To wait my turn.

unnamed 1The home improvements.

unnamed 1The gardening.

unnamed 1To get my hands dirty.

unnamed 1For the happy times

unnamed 1...and the sad.

unnamed 1For the alone time

unnamed 1...and the "you will never be alone" time.

unnamed 17For the "mum doesn't have to go through this on her own" time.

MEDLIFE provides basic health care coverage, sustainable development projects and education to those in poverty. My photos are only a small insight into the lives of some of the most amazing, determined and friendliest people I have ever met. MEDLIFE's work within these communities is worth flying 6,316 miles to be a part of. 
October 16, 2015 2:47 pm

Intern Journal: Leigh Cohen

Written by Leigh Cohen

Six months and five days ago, I was sitting in the study room of the University of Michigan's Union with my best friend.  Aside from studying for the last final exam of my undergraduate career, the morning could not have been more ordinary; the weather was beautiful and I was well equipped with my computer and white chocolate mocha coffee to ace the quickly approaching exam.  My biggest concerns included whether I wanted No Thai! or Frita Batidos for lunch, what I was going to wear to Skeeps (Michigan's infamous sports bar) that night, and how – in one short month, I was expected to live without the nine crazy girls with whom I shared my house, closet and dreams.  Then, I opened an email from Tim Anson.  “Dear Leigh, MEDLIFE would like to present you the opportunity to take part in our Year Long Internship for 2015/16.  Your internship will begin the week of August 3rd.”  Six months and five days ago, this seemingly ordinary day quickly became one of the most monumental days of my life.

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Though I have a lot of experience with travel and have even lived abroad for four months with Semester at Sea, I don't think anything could have prepared me for what was coming.  Graduating from Michigan was a huge change in and of itself, which made moving to Lima, Peru in just four months nearly ungraspable.  Of course, there were a handful of times when I was ready to pick up and go, but most of the time, I felt almost numb to its realization.  In all honesty, I had not packed a single article of clothing until the Sunday before my Tuesday flight.  In a way, that procrastination may have been a manifestation of my fear of leaving unfinished business behind – part of that unfinished business being my gradual entrance into the “adult world.”  However, in the weeks leading up to my departure date, I began to realize that no one is ever truly ready to make that leap – it just happens.  One day, you are sitting in the same library you have spent countless days at, and the next, you are booking a one-way ticket to Peru.  Life just happens, and that is a beautiful and exciting thing.

Since arriving in Lima, I have learned to call a large white house of thirteen interns “home” – a term I thought could not be coined in such a short amount of time.  I have roamed the lively streets of Miraflores and listened to the tunes of a trumpeter in Plaza de Barranco.  I have also hiked the high hills of Lima's communities living in immense poverty and formed great friendships with several women and children of Los Jardines de Pamplona.  I have visited six follow-up care patients and alleviated the stresses of a community's dangerous trek by creation of a staircase.  I have held the hand of a woman, Ana, who thanked me for leaving my country for hers, and I have laughed contagiously with two little girls, Anyeli and Adriana, as they climbed on the back of a dog and told me of a time when they ripped their pants while climbing a nearby tree.  It is experiences like these that make what happened six months and five days ago one of the best days of my life.

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There is a very common, almost cliché quote from Confucius that reads, “Choose a job you love and you will never have to work a day in your life.”  For me, working for MEDLIFE embodies this idea entirely.  I believe there are very few work environments in which the entire office is driven by a seemingly untreatable desire to help.  There are also very few work environments in which the driving force behind those desires is just a few miles away in the hills of Lima.  Pairing these aspects of MEDLIFE together allows all of us to turn our dreams of creating sustainable and positive change into reality.  In two short months, my life has been filled with abounding joy and determination, and I owe all of that to MEDLIFE.  Six months and five days ago, I began an emotional embarkation on an experience that would soon become very real and very tangible.  Six months and five days ago, life just happened, and it is a life I could not be more proud and more excited to lead.

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