Students spend break building medical facility overseas


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Photo by Courtesy of Barkha Patel |

Students in the Salud y Paz project went to Guatemala to help build the second story of a medical building over Spring Break.


Rather than partying on the beach or moseying on the couch at home, some University students spent Spring Break pouring concrete and digging foundations under the Guatemalan sun for a construction project to expand a local health clinic.

The newly recognized University chapter of International Hands in Service, worked on the project known as Salud y Paz — Spanish for health and peace — in the city of Camanchaj, Guatemala.

“We want to allow students to be the change that they want to be and to involve themselves around the world,” said Barkha Patel, the chapter president.

The University chapter began unofficially after Salud y Paz founder Phil Plunk came to speak to students enrolled University Professor Jeff Wilhelms’s “Social Problems” course. Wilhelm said Plunk’s presentation was compelling.

“I think there were people crying in the audience,” he said.

After the presentation, five students approached him to ask how they could participate, Wilhelms said.

Patel was in her first year at the University when Plunk came to speak. As a sophomore, Patel and 13 other students traveled to Guatemala.

“I just wanted to be the change,” Patel said. “Its something that calls to you, and you can’t really ignore it.”

She also could not miss the opportunity to immerse herself in the culture and live alongside people in the country.

It took over a year for the group to be recognized by the University. Patel felt that it made sense for such a service organization to be under the University’s umbrella.

“I mean its Rutgers after all, you know — global reach,” Patel said.

Students in the project worked on involved building the second story of a medical building, Wilhelms said.

The new facility gives people somewhere to stay the night, establish spaces for surgery and make room for equipment, Patel said.

Residents of nearby villages walk long distances to get to the clinic, and the limited amount of doctors and time mean they sometimes do not get seen until the next day, Patel said.

“If they couldn’t get to see the doctor, they don’t go home. They stay and they sit exposed to the elements under an overhang,” Wilhelms said.

Wilhelms explained that the group had little mechanical equipment available for the work that they did.

The group dug holes for foundations, cut rebar, mixed concrete and carried it up ladders all by hand, he said.

“We built about six or seven columns — it took us all week,” Wilhelms said.

Patel described the work as backbreaking.

Briana Reiner, a Rutgers Business School first-year student who went on the trip, said the group was awake by 7 a.m. and back at their hotel by 6 p.m.

She said she did not know what to expect of the trip but found it more rewarding than she had imagined.

“Every stone and pile of cement we mixed was directly helping someone,” she said.

Reiner found out about the opportunity to go to Guatemala from Wilhelms. An email mentioning the trip suggested that it could be the opportunity she had been looking for.

“[That’s] exactly what I thought when I saw it,” Reiner said.

Throughout high school, she had been interested in traveling to perform community service. Before her trip to Guatemala, she had never traveled outside of the United States.

“I wanted to travel … to help people … to open my eyes to other places and see how other people lived,” she said.

The trip also offered Reiner an opportunity to explore her interest in the Spanish language. Her parents were supportive and she paid the cost of the trip herself.

Each participant had to pay $1,450, Wilhelms said.

Patel also paid for the cost of the trip herself, though she hopes that official recognition by the University will allow them to appeal to the Rutgers University Student Association for funding to make the work less financially burdensome.

The founder of Salud y Paz spoke with the students upon their arrival. Plunk told them that they should not be materialistic but instead help others when they feel unhappy.

“[He said] that’s what brings true happiness,” Reiner said. “I’ll carry [that idea] with me forever.”

Reiner looks to hold a position in the University’s chapter of the organization as well as go on another trip to Guatemala.

She hopes that more University students could begin traveling to Guatemala to work with the organization on its projects.

“So that we could really make an impact just as our school,” she said.

This was Patel’s second time working with Salud y Paz and she said she feels like she has a special connection to Guatemala and the people she met.

“It was magical,” she said.

People would come by the worksite and thank them for their presence in the community and explain the impact they were having, she said.

They had the opportunity to interact with the schoolchildren in the area as well.

“We would be playing with the kids and they would just hug us and not let go,” Patel said. “You’d think you just don’t want to come back to America.”

The people they met had little financial wealth but did not lack kindness and compassion, she said.

“They give us more than we give [them] and that’s really what’s so special about it,” she said.


By Simon Galperin

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