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International Development and Service with Panama’s Public Health Brigades; Arianna De Reus, Sophomore, CED Major

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Posted: April 23, 2013

When working to serve others, one becomes grounded on values that truly matter in life, allowing people to find themselves through selflessness.
Arianna with Public Health Brigades volunteers and family that received the latrine

Arianna with Public Health Brigades volunteers and family that received the latrine

Over Spring Break I traveled to Panama with Penn State’s Public Health Brigades. This was an alternative spring break trip, where we volunteered our time, energy and money to build latrines for a rural village. We worked with an indigenous Kuna community, and learned about their culture and ways of life. My time in Panama was an excellent opportunity to volunteer, participate in cultural exchange and improve my communication skills in a group environment.

Although volunteers are only there for a week, Global Brigades works for months in advance with different communities, partnering with local leadership and doing community needs assessments. In addition, Global Brigades has a constant presence with staff working year-round in each community. We worked in an indigenous Kuna community that has been marginalized by the government and constantly threatened by land right disputes. We learned that the Kuna are struggling to maintain their culture as urbanization decreases their land and modern technology and society encroaches on their traditional ways of life. Since most Kuna families rely on subsistence farming for their livelihoods, they have minimal income. One major public health concern in the community is a lack of proper latrines. Some families couldn’t afford latrines, while others had ones that were made of a 15 ft. pit in the ground. In the rainy season, this pit floods and spreads disease.

DeReusPanama2.pngOur goal for the week was to construct six latrines within our group for the Kuna community. The latrine design that Public Health Brigades uses is built above ground, and made of concrete bricks, wooden walls and a tin roof. Since this latrine built from the ground up, there is no possibility of flooding the inside. Most importantly, the waste below decomposes over a year because the user throws sawdust down below.

Our large group from Penn State split into smaller groups of five people and we were each partnered with a family in the community. Each day we woke up at 5:30 a.m. to commute an hour and a half by bus to the village. We worked all day, mixing concrete by hand, cutting rebar and wood for the frame, mortaring bricks together and constructing the walls. This work was labor intensive and the weather is extremely hot and humid in Panama because it is so close to the equator. Our group worked extremely well as a team and by the end of the week, my group completely finished constructing the latrine for our family.

Although the family that we worked with was extremely shy at first, on the third day they really opened up to us. While we were working, the father brought out bread that he had just baked on the fire inside of their house. This was an incredibly generous, as the family was very poor with three children and little extra food. The connection that meant the most to me was that the youngest daughter of the family was named Adriana. Since most Kuna people rarely speak Spanish, this was a unique case. When the family learned that my name was Arianna, they were so happy and excited that I shared such a similar name with their youngest daughter. They remembered my name all week after that moment, which meant a lot to me that we shared that connection.

DeReusPanama3.pngWorking in Panama for a week put everyone out of their comfort zones. Our entire group had to sleep in the same giant hut with just a sheet and a cot. The hut was open-air, so any birds, bats or bugs were free to come inside at all times. The showers only had cold water, we used squat toilets and the lights were solar powered and shut off at 10 p.m. However these conditions combined with no internet or phone accesses enabled the group to bond tremendously and learn about each other with zero distractions. I had to improve my communication skills and patience, since everything was a process in a large group. There were only four showers and bathrooms for the compound, so people had to take very short showers and wait in line for their turn. When building the latrine, if I got tired or needed water I had to express that to my group, since only I was responsible for myself.

What brought the group together the most was that we were all there for the same reason. Service oriented Spring Break trips bring out the good in people. When building latrines all day in the sun with a group of students, there are no superficial mechanisms such as technology to hide behind. You learn how people think and who they truly are, making some of the most genuine friendships. When working to serve others, one becomes grounded on values that truly matter in life, allowing people to find themselves through selflessness.