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By Erykah Forquer

Students at Dana Hills High School Health and Medical Occupational Academy were virtually transported to rural communities in Honduras, Ghana and Greece as they participated in a virtual, experiential-learning program and provided assistance to areas in need.

Global Brigades is an international student-funded organization that is dedicated to empowering under-resourced communities through the deployment of volunteers who work to establish equal access to health care, capital and clean water. Traditionally, the humanitarian nonprofit would send groups of volunteers abroad, but as international travel came to a halt due to the COVID-19 health crisis, Global Brigades shifted its program to a virtual format.

“We knew that we could not break the commitments or stop the work that we are doing in the communities that we have partnered with,” said Dr. Shital Vora, CEO and cofounder of Global Brigades. “So, we quickly put our heads together as a team and created this virtual program, which we are calling TeleBrigades for university students and then TeleSquads for high school students. Then we created a full program that would be able to really mimic exactly what they are doing on the ground, but through Zoom.”

HMO, a state-funded academy designed for individuals who are pursuing a career in the health field, requires its third-year students to participate in an internship at Kaiser Permanente. When juniors were unable to intern at Kaiser due to COVID restrictions, a teacher at Dana Hills’ Health and Medical Occupational Academy stumbled upon TeleSquads while conducting a Google search to find a substitute for the program’s annual internship. After making a monetary contribution to Global Brigades, HMO students enrolled in TeleSquad’s online curriculum.

“They did a medical TeleSquad, and so they were able to do virtual learning programs in Honduras, Ghana and Greece,” Vora said. “They did livestream clinic days, where they were able to observe in real time where staff were consulting and having appointments with patients and local residents, and those doctors would then discuss the diagnosis with the team.”

HMO students participated in three brigades, or virtual trips abroad, over the course of the school year. Students would log onto their laptops twice a week and attend Zoom meetings with local brigade staff members and community members in the three different countries. Each week, students were assigned different tasks that included creating diagrams and infographics, assisting doctors in diagnosing patients and presenting research projects.

While the program was strictly conducted through a computer screen, Elle Burnight, a senior at HMO, said TeleSquads successfully immersed the students in the rural communities with which they were virtually working. Local brigade staff members would inform volunteers on the culture and health care system of each community and conduct virtual tours.

: Carina Feeney, a Rutgers University student, participates in a Global Brigades virtual program. Photo: Courtesy of Global Brigades

“One of the big things that was so cool about the TeleSquads program is that they were able to take us on livestreamed tours down main street and into their clinics,” Burnight said. “So, on clinic days, we were able to observe doctors in real-time having appointments with local residents, so even though we were all these miles apart, we were right in the room.”

Global Brigades was launched in 2003 when Vora was a junior at Marquette University studying to become a physical therapist. After being unable to study abroad, Dr. Vora was eager to attend a trip to Honduras alongside her friend, a physician who was going abroad to treat patients. On her first “brigade,” Vora and 20 other students from Marquette joined a group of physicians on the trip during their spring break.

“We thought we were going to be just lugging medication or kind of just being the ‘gofers’ and work behind the scenes, but what we didn’t realize, and what we were just totally amazed by, is that as young undergrads, we were making so much impact in just that one week,” Dr. Vora said. “For me, it was just such a life-changing experience and really transformational in terms of what I wanted to do for my career.”

When she returned from Honduras, Vora looked for other organizations to get further involved but was not able to find opportunities for undergraduate students.

“We kind of took a leap of faith and decided to create our own organization, which is Global Brigades, and we were one chapter at Marquette, and now fast-forward 18 years later and we are now the largest student-led humanitarian organization in the world. We are working in Ghana, Honduras, Panama, Nicaragua, Guatemala and Greece, and then we have over 550 university and high school chapters.”

Global Brigades is now working toward its goal of the “Empowered 100,” helping 100 rural communities in Panama, Nicaragua, Ghana and Honduras rise out of poverty through its holistic model. Vora said the process of establishing an empowered community is an in-depth process, as Global Brigades works with local governments and community leaders to determine their goals.

Once Global Brigades meets with the government and leaders of the local community, its research team conducts surveys to ensure that the community’s needs can be met with the different programs that the organization offers.

“Community leaders are weaved throughout that whole process,” Vora said. “So again, we are facilitating and helping bring in those resources, but the community leaders are actually the ones, along with our volunteers, that are executing and implementing the program and the work that is really raising them to a better quality of life.”

HMO student Edgar Artega said that working with Global Brigades was an eye-opening experience that taught him how to be grateful and compassionate.

“I personally grew up in a low-income household, so I was always aware of economic and social disparities, but this experience put it into perspective,” Artega said. “Growing up, sometimes we struggled with paying the bills, medications and things like that, but after seeing how these people in Ghana and people in Honduras and refugees in Greece lived, I was able to see how privileged I was just for the sole fact of living in America and having so many opportunities.”

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