What began as a dinner conversation turned into the medical mission trip of a lifetime. Here’s what happened when this emergency medicine travel nurse dared to celebrate Thanksgiving in a whole new way by taking a humanitarian trip to Comedero Grande, Mexico.
A fresh perspective on helping others with whatever we have to offer
Imagine waking up in a landlocked village with a population of around 400. You’re in the center of Mexico, East of Guadalajara, North of Mexico City, and hours from the nearest medical facility. Water, resources, and everyday comforts are scarce, and the language barrier means communicating mostly through hand gestures. These are the conditions that emergency medicine travel nurse Karen Lathers landed in for eight days in November, and she says she loved every minute of it.
“I had been seeking this type of volunteer experience back when I graduated from nursing school. I wanted to get out there to give back with my skills, travel, and see other cultures from a perspective that differs from the average tourist’s view. Right from the beginning, I was impressed. It was a really great experience.”
Earlier in the year, Karen attended an RNnetwork appreciation dinner where she met a number of her fellow travel nurses and several RNnetwork and CHG Healthcare executives. As a result of those conversations, Karen’s name came up when plans for the Mexico expedition began to take shape. Who knew that a random dinner invitation could lead to an experience like this? Read on to see if a volunteer experience like Karen’s could be right for you.
The most memorable parts of the volunteer experience
Karen was part of a team of 16 that included participants from several CHG companies and Choice Humanitarian, an organization that helps rural communities lift themselves out of poverty. She was touched by the sense of community she saw in Comedero Grande.
“These people who have so little – they all come together to work so hard for their village and one another. We helped finish the roof on the community center and there were more than fifty villagers helping carry heavy buckets of cement back and forth. Whenever somebody is building a home, the whole village comes out to help put the roof on. I was just really impressed with how hard these people worked for their community. They kept expressing so much gratitude for everything.”
All of the team members talked about memories from the trip that were especially moving. The material poverty in places like Comedero Grande makes a powerful impression on first-time visitors, but the team was equally struck by the deep personal connections the villagers share. One traveler observed that the local people aren’t distracted by technology or social media, so they’re focused on each other. During the team work projects, locals were kind and patient with the children, integrating them into all activities as a part of community life.
Several participants said that they had dreamed of a volunteer experience like this for years but had no idea how to make it happen. Like Karen, they expressed similar thoughts about how grateful they were for the groundwork done on their behalf to make the travel and logistics so safe and organized.
A typical day on the Mexico humanitarian expedition
Choice Humanitarian was chosen by CHG Healthcare to facilitate the expedition because of their international experience and their integrity. They have a carefully structured process in place to give all team members a fulfilling cross-cultural experience while protecting their health and safety in the area where they’re volunteering.
Team members stayed two or three to a home with local host families that were selected by Choice Humanitarian. To give everyone a chance to connect and share experiences, the volunteers ate group meals prepared by a team cook, including a festive Thanksgiving potluck shared with local villagers. Work activities included improvements to a community center and bathroom facility, a stove, an oven, and completion of a badly needed rainwater collection cistern.
For five days out of the eight-day trip, the team would gather for breakfast, work in rotating groups on project assignments, and then break for a shared lunch. In the afternoon, they would either return to the project rotation, or assist with afternoon classes and workshops for the villagers. Evenings included time to share their experiences as a group and bond with the host families, but most volunteers were ready for bed after a hard day’s work.
Education and awareness is part of giving locals a hand up
A big focus of these expeditions is to help the local community develop self-sufficiency, rather than creating dependency on external programs. One way this shows up is through education about financial responsibility through programs like the Savings Box concept, where women are encouraged to pool money for various community needs. Health awareness is another area where the volunteer efforts help to promote self-sufficiency. Karen’s chance to go on the expedition came up in part because of the need for a nurse to help the team EMT teach health workshops for the villagers.
“The great thing is that we were able to learn from the villagers as well. I know how I teach CPR in America, but in a country without our resources, you need to know who’s coming to help them once they start and what kind of medical resources they’re going to have. They were very eager to learn and very engaged in the workshops. You could tell they were very happy to get this information. They were very excited to have a medical professional that they could ask about all these medical questions.”
Karen assisted with workshops on topics like CPR, choking, first aid, hygiene, and basic health awareness. She was gratified by the number of villagers who approached her with health questions. The high point of the education program was “Days for Girls,” a series of specialized activities around women’s health that was especially well received. Karen got to participate in the training and the distribution of 140 Days for Girls kits that provided the villagers with feminine hygiene products they would not normally have access to.
Making a difference as a company purpose – and a way of life
Employees and travel nurses alike will tell you that making a difference is built into RNnetwork’s cultural DNA. Their parent company, CHG Healthcare, makes giving back a defining part of the way they operate by putting their own people first, and by making it easy for them to support causes that matter to them.
Several times a year, the company facilitates humanitarian trips in and out of the U.S. This one was organized in cooperation with Choice Humanitarian, CHG Healthcare, and the Making a Difference Foundation, who also provided the grant that made it possible for Karen to go along with the other volunteers. Karen’s impressions echo the feelings of many team members.
“I was very impressed with Choice Humanitarian’s in-country staff and the expedition leaders we traveled with. They had a wonderful way of bringing the group together and helping us feel comfortable in the village. It makes me happy to know that the company I work for offers these types of service opportunities.”
Karen encourages everyone who gets an opportunity like this to get to know the other volunteers and engage with the villagers as much as possible. She found that language barriers quickly dissolve through the magic of shared experiences.
“I keep telling everybody it’s going to go down as one of my favorite Thanksgivings. I love being with my family, but it was nice to have the opportunity to get in there and work hard and educate this community and give to them. After our Thanksgiving potluck dinner, we had four piñatas for the group and it was a really neat blend of cultures. It was so amazing to be able to give on the holiday.”
Curious about emergency medicine travel jobs (or other specialties) like the one that put Karen on the path to Mexico? You can explore them here.