ISE is a company that prides itself on encouraging and supporting volunteerism. This month, we have already held our first blood drive of the year and are in the midst of a toilet paper drive (food stamps can’t be used for toilet paper, it is deemed a “luxury” item”). Our Philanthropy Committee has laid out a very aggressive schedule for the year.
The Castañeda Kids Foundation
Frankly, I had never volunteered for anything significant before in my life. But I have always idolized my sister who is a nurse in the Bay Area. She has participated regularly over the years in medical missions to Nepal, Tibet, the Philippines, and other exotic places. Over the past five years, she has worked with a group called The Castañeda Kids Foundation. It was established in 1985 by the parents of a family from El Salvador in response to a major earthquake there. The family owns a nice hotel in San Salvador, the parents are now deceased, and three of their four children have moved on to professional careers in the US. The family's charitable foundation includes annual holiday gift baskets and educational scholarships (it costs $150 to sponsor a student in an accredited K-12 program). The son of one of the Casteneda children transformed the family’s charitable foundation to include an annual mission conducted by medical professionals, mostly from San Jose (CA), to bring free medical care to some economically challenged neighborhoods in El Salvador.
My wife and I have no medical expertise, but my sister shut that excuse down – there is always plenty of work to do and many ways to contribute. She volunteered me for IT work. No one in my family understands what I do at all – my brother always tells me “you are the computer guy” although I have worked in management and business development roles for thirty years. My wife was enlisted as a translator. She is a second/third generation Mexican-American who excelled in Spanish classes in high school and college…many moons ago as she would discover. We were told that the end of mission ceremonies would be held over two days at the luxurious Castañeda beach house, and that this alone was worth the trip. So with dreams of changing the world, experiencing an exciting new culture, and having a nice dinner and day at a tropical beach in February, we signed up for the mission!
The Amazing Team
As we found out at the kickoff dinner in San Salvador, this year’s mission included five US-based MDs, fifteen nurses, ten paramedics and firefighters, five pharmacists, six wonderful Bay Area high school students, a number of PAs, CMAs, CNAs and other medical professionals, and Jim the IT guy. Jim is special, actually a long-retired Chemist who developed a workflow system that has been in use by the mission for a couple of years and would miraculously prove to be perfectly sufficient and completely bug-free. He needed IT help, and he and I agreed that the best thing that could be done is to power systems off and back on and hope the condition was cleared. I was looking around for the other old guys with no relevant experience that would be “really helpful” to the mission and my wife was looking for the other translators. I was teamed up with Kevin, the retired former police chief of Santa Clara. This is an entirely different story. My wife was assigned to work with five lifelong Spanish speakers who had several years of mission experience. I was starting to doubt my sister.
On Sunday night, as we enjoyed the 90-degree weather and looked in awe at the tranquil swimming pool at the Castañeda's hotel, we received a few hints of what was to come. A 5:30 AM wake-up call and breakfast starting at 5:45 to make sure everyone and everything was loaded on the two buses by 6:30 so we could make an advertised one-hour drive to the first mission stop – which, while the mission is secular and apolitical, would be set up in the Juan Pablo II Church Center in San Julian. A primary goal of the Castañeda family is to make sure that everyone on the mission feels safe throughout, so we were told that we would be accompanied by a security detail which turned out to be four security guards armed with heavy automatic weaponry. And please, we were told, above all, DON’T EAT THE STREET FOOD! I asked my sister if the plateful of pupusas that she had me buy from a vendor just outside the airport and eat on the way to the hotel (native Salvadoran treats that look like small quesadillas filled with cheese, beans, and meat and topped with salsa and cabbage) qualified as street food and she pretended not to hear me, saying only: “You need to get to bed, 5:30 comes early”.
Poolside at the Hotel
I’m not a morning person, so I really impressed myself by making it to breakfast by 6:15. The breakfast buffet was spectacular. My sister asked me to carry her two bags to the bus, each of which seemed to weigh 100 pounds each, giving their plastic handles generally the same consistency as razor wire. We left on time at 6:30 AM.
Stop 1 - San Julian
I was surprised that San Salvador has traffic. Very, very heavy traffic. We made it to San Julian around 8:15 AM which, I was told, was really good time. People were not lined up to meet us on arrival as I had been told…this is their fourth year at San Julian and the townspeople had helped organize the crowds quite well. The mission was originally held in Soyapango, an area with extreme gang activity. But the nuns in that area have set up a very effective clinic system, so the Castanedas searched for other communities to serve. San Julian works with other communities to bring in trucks loaded with people on a timed basis to help the mission see as many people as they can. The entire staff was invited to a planning meeting. Except me. I was told my first job was to set up and wire about fifty fans throughout the covered areas of the mission, and to secure the power cords with duct tape. And it would help if it was done by the time the meeting ended. For those of you who do this for a living, I feel you. I really feel you.
When I finished, the crowds had started to line up. I’ll just say the people of the area are economically challenged and in great need. I watched as the workflow was set up – local people to let groups through the gate and to guide them to several seating areas to wait for intake, four intake stations manned by the high school students, fifteen triage stations each manned by a nurse, a translator, and a paramedic (I was proud of my sister, who was entrusted to perform all three roles – she lived in Mexico as a hippie for a few years back in the sixties, and is a genuine force of nature, if forces of nature require fourteen hours of sleep per day), and five private rooms for the MDs and their small staffs. We also traveled with a Salvadoran dentist (focused on extractions) and an optometrist (reading glasses).
I stood and watched the flow of people for fifteen or twenty minutes when it became apparent that I really didn’t have a very well-defined job. Enter Carlos, the EMT who established the mission. IT issues in the pharmacy were being experienced, and he was concerned that wait times for visitors – usually a significant period of time – would be even longer than usual. I was told my new job was managing IT and workflow in the pharmacy – keep the orders coming in, make sure they are printed out, oversee their progress, make sure they are held until a patient is released, and help the disbursement team (i.e. my wife and any spare translators looking to spend some time with locals) distribute. Basically, keep things organized.
I’d love to regale you with tales of my heroics in the pharmacy. I did respond to a number of technical issues, hard-wired some printers, came up with some clever workarounds, printed labels, loaded paper, etc. I was very good at logging items and figuring out where things were in our pharmacy, which had about fifteen team members. Mainly, I did exactly what Ashley the Pharmacy Manager (who is awesome) told me to do. I was day-dreaming of getting a special award at the final ceremonies for my selfless perseverance and contributions to the mission. My sister came in for her first break two hours into the proceedings and informed me that for the first three years, Carlos’s father and Jim the wonderful IT guy managed all of the activities in the pharmacy by themselves. Out of an eight-foot by eight-foot room. Buzzkill.
In our three days at San Julian, we saw nearly two thousand people. My sister’s bags were filled with Barbie Dolls, model cars, clothes, and countless other items that she has found useful to distribute during her prior visits. She would spend a lot of time every day at setup figuring how she could position herself best to give away items without being noticed. She had told my wife that cosmetics of any type are quite popular as handouts, and my wife found that she had over one hundred free samples and add-ons that she’s received from department stores for other purchases over the years. These were indeed much appreciated. My wife had also bought a case of toothbrushes and toothpaste, and was inserting these into every pharmacy bag she delivered. I had bought several hundred soccer cards and packaged them to hand out…each pack including Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo, and nine other cards. Seemed like a great idea at the time. Of course, we ran out of Neosporin on day three, and I did seriously re-think my priorities while thinking of the four or five tubes of Neosporin aging in the drawers of our bathroom.
We would have seen more people at San Julian, but the locals had planned a dance program for us on the last day. Twelve young girls had a series of dances they performed, and about twenty other young boys and girls worked as backup singers. Later, I was told that the dancers were all daughters of women who moved from high-risk professions into a sewing program that was organized at the center by the mission, including sewing machines, training, and connections to a distribution network. This enabled the women to make better money sewing and to bring their daughters to the center for educational programs, including a dance class. I really hope I never forget the dance program.
The Dance Performance
Stop 2 - Tacachico
Our second stop (on Thursday) was a new site for the mission – Tacachico. It took us a very long time to get there, but Tacachico was so far from everything else that I was told there was no gang activity nearby. Tacachico had been a candidate in earlier years as it has a nice new church center, but the men of the community needed to dig a new well to make the mission viable. My favorite memory was giving some soccer cards, a hacky-sack and candy to a boy who ended up waiting to see a doctor for more than two hours. While he waited, he sat on a chair on the other side of the glass separating me from the waiting area, watching everything I did and laughing at every joke I told. We communicated through the glass with gestures and facial expressions. Later, his family told me he was deaf, but I think soccer cards, Tootsie Pops and my jokes have their own unspoken language.
We saw more than 500 people at Tacachico. We ran out of Acetaminophen early. The pharmacy was told late in the day to double the amount of Motrin, cough syrup, vitamins, and most of everything else that we were giving out. A new supply would be waiting for us at our final stop on Friday in Villa Palestina.
Stop 3 - Villa Palestina
Friday morning was a bit different for everyone. We had returned very late from Tacachico, and we would be leaving our hotel in San Salvador early Friday for good. On a positive note, we didn’t have our nightly two-hour planning meeting to attend! Villa Palestina is located westward towards the beach, so we would set up in a new hotel for the last two nights. We needed to get up a bit earlier (if that is possible). Also, my sister had four very heavy extra suitcases she had brought along that I needed to carry (drag) to the bus.
The mission has been traveling to Villa Palestina for a few years. We were met on arrival by a family that my sister has been sponsoring. I was asked to take the suitcases to the family’s home. Luckily, the children from the family took the suitcases, leaving me empty-handed for a short time until my sister gave me her infamous “razor-handled bags” to carry. I hadn’t known it, but she has been bringing and sending clothing, food, and other items to the family for some time. The father of the family has contracted Multiple Sclerosis, and it seems as though my sister’s contributions were much needed. I had a few packs of soccer cards in my pocket but, frankly, it just seemed a little inadequate to me to offer these as we sat in their modest home amongst wandering chickens and dogs while watching the family unpack four suitcases of staples with utter glee. One house on a crowded street, in a village with a 100 streets.
My Sister's Sponsor Family
By the end of Friday, we had seen nearly 3,000 people over the five days. I had given out about 300 soccer cards, which more and more I was seeing as less-than-heroic. Mostly, we treated parasites, malnutrition, skin conditions, and colds, fever and the flu. We distributed very basic pain medications and skin creams. The doctors and nurses had seen and treated many more serious conditions, but I wasn’t really asking many questions at this point. My wife didn’t feel much like talking about her days, as the desperation of the visitors she spoke with who needed to try so hard to get ten days of vitamins or twelve Motrin capsules had really impacted her. I felt really good about the efforts of the others, especially the doctors and hardened nurses like my sister, but I really wondered what I had contributed and just what impact it made for the other 51 weeks of year for the people of San Julian, Tacachico, and Villa Palestina.
The beach house was really quite nice. We all enjoyed a nice sunset and dinner. The next morning, we were able to take a cruise on a wildlife estuary near the beach. We were accompanied by several others (we were hustled into the ‘old’ persons boat along with a handful of others). Halfway through the cruise, I was joking with an ENT who was with us. As we shared stories about our time, she told the group that one of her favorite memories was at Villa Palestina. After she had packed up, she came outside to get some air and watched while some of the neighborhood boys sat together looking over and talking with great excitement about their soccer cards. “Somebody really had a clever idea with that.”
Everyone Can Make a Difference
Trust me, I am no expert on volunteering. I certainly have no illusions that I helped change anything significantly for anyone. I do believe that trying is the most important thing, that every little bit of effort counts, and that very small actions have the chance to make very large differences. Of the 65 people on our mission, 64 made immeasurably greater contributions than I did. And at ISE, everyone who contributes to our many charitable activities outpaces me by a lot. But I am surprised by how good it feels to hear that the triage area was cooler this year, or that wait times for prescriptions were an hour less. Or that ten soccer cards can really make someone’s day a lot brighter, even if they are in very great need.