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December 03, 2020

Beyond 9-to-5: USA for UNHCR employee volunteers in Panama health clinic

Nic in Panama

Part of USA for UNHCR’s commitment to maintaining its status as a Great Place to Work® is recognizing that our staff members are passionate, active and committed citizens outside of the workplace. Recognizing our employees’ interest in and capacity for service, USA for UNHCR’s benefits package includes a volunteer program that provides 35 hours a year of paid leave to encourage employees to pursue volunteer opportunities.  

USA for UNHCR Communication Manager, Nic Feeney, utilized this benefit to volunteer on a mission trip to Panama with This is Health, a non-profit dedicated to providing medical care to underserved communities throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. 

My friend Ben Dearing has a big heart. Providing care to those in need is his life’s work. For the last 10 years, he’s worked as an emergency room nurse in Washington, D.C. and San Francisco. Since he was a teenager, Ben has volunteered on medical mission trips around the world. In 2015, he decided to start This is Health – an opportunity to use his experience and contacts to organize medical mission trips on his own. Ben organizes the medical volunteers, raises the funds and coordinates with local authorities, church groups and Peace Corps volunteers to ensure each trip is as great a success as possible.

How did a non-medical professional like myself end up volunteering at a health clinic in Panama? As with so many things, it started with a cup of coffee with a friend.

“You do all the work,” I said to Ben. “You raise the money, you bartend on weekends to help fund these trips and you’re at the hospital full time. I want to try and help.”

“What do you think you can do?” he said. “We always need extra hands.”

I explained that I could document the trip, improve his social media outreach and help him tell the story of This is Health – connecting his donors directly to the care they help deliver. I couldn’t bring any medical expertise, but I could develop a template of how to improve communication and fundraising for future trips.

Ben in Panama

A few weeks later, I was in a group of about a dozen medical volunteers headed for the Ngäbe-Buglé, a comarcas indígenas – indigenous region in western Panama on the border with Costa Rica. The Ngäbe are an indigenous people who live in the region. It is isolated and there is little access to jobs, healthcare or transportation. Ngäbe is also a language (though not traditionally written down) and many over the age of 70 do not speak Spanish, which adds another layer of isolation for older Ngäbe.

We worked out of a mobile clinic that was set up in an old church on top of a mountain. The space wasn't much more than a sparsely furnished church activity room, but within a few hours, we transformed it to a working clinic. While we worked to build out the clinic, a line began to form. People had walked miles to see a doctor or nurse and remained patient as we completed preparations.

When we finished, there was a waiting room and patient intake area, examination rooms divided using wire and plastic tarps, an eye exam station and a pop-up pharmacy where patients received medicine. I spent most of my time working in the pharmacy – my working knowledge of Spanish was good enough to translate prescriptions and assist nurses and doctors who didn’t speak Spanish explain to the patients how to take the medicine.

child panama

Respiratory and skin ailments were common issues. The humidity of the region and the modest houses of the Ngäbe, often with no windows and dirt floors, contributed the most to these conditions. There were also dozens of checkups for babies, young children and new mothers. The nearest medical facility is miles away at the bottom the mountain. There is no public transportation.

For four days the clinic operated from sun up to sun down – the line never ended. Thanks to the generosity of the local church we had water, lunch and snacks. There was a particularly tasty yuca soup with carrots and onion that I had numerous bowls of.

In the end, This is Health volunteers provided care to nearly 700 people. Beyond the new friendships made and the fulfillment that good hard work brings, I was grateful to spend time witnessing my friend delivering care to people who needed it.

I was also grateful to work for an organization that values employee interests outside of the workplace. It’s a benefit that few organizations offer and it’s a privilege to have a job at one that does. When I returned, I shared my experience at an all staff meeting. I hope my sharing inspired other colleagues to take advantage of this great benefit and give back to people and causes they are most passionate about.