by Jessica Nicholas
Liz Berryman, a second year UCSD Medical student, had known for a long time that she wanted to work with marginalized populations when she became a doctor, but a trip to rural Guatemala with the organization Voces y Manos por el Derecho de la Salud (Voices and Hands for the Right to Health), brought her commitment to a new level. "Voces y Manos was a vehicle to eye-opening experiences that have changed the way that I view the world, ” she reflects about the trip. “To be able to work with [the group] for the health of indigenous Guatemalans today … is a precious experience that I will carry with me into my practice as a physician."
Her experience echoes the feelings of many of the dedicated volunteers that have made the two-month trip to Rabinal, Guatemala.
The organization began after Biology undergraduate Michael Bakal spent a life-changing summer in Rabinal putting on a health fair using a Chancellor’s undergraduate research grant. He returned to UCSD determined to go back to the community with more resources and other volunteers.
That year at UCSD, larger grants were applied for and a student group with the same name was formed. In collaboration with other dedicated student leaders, Michael and the group developed a program based on the advice
of the Rabinal health organization, ASECSA, and with the help of UCSD School of Medicine Community Pediatrics faculty, Dr. Howard Taras. Together, they drew up a plan for three community health fairs, health promoter trainings and work with the youth.
The trip that summer was a success. There were eight volunteers in addition to two doctors, including UCSD School of Medicine faculty member, Dr. Bron Anders. She was moved by the work of the volunteers, later writing, “It was awe-inspiring. Can you imagine planning a health fair for 400 plus people in a community an hour and a half away, accessible only by pick-up trucks? . . . They did it all, with humor, tremendous energy and intelligence, mutual respect, and of course all in Spanish.”
Voces y Manos has now developed an annual summer program in Guatemala, in addition to a year-long scholarship program for the local youth.
The summer program gives volunteers practical experience in international health by coordinating and participating in community health fairs, as well as gives them exposure to the Guatemalan health care system. The group works closely with the local government and health-related organizations.
Every year, the summer volunteer experience has continued to develop. This past summer, a new school of nursing opened and the students were able to volunteer at the health fairs. Also, medical students from the only medical
school in Guatemala, University of San Carlos participated as a part of their rural health rotations.
The program is designed to make volunteers reflect on why such massive health disparities exist in the world, and what action they can take in their lives as future professionals to work to eliminate them. It is more than just doing good work for one summer, it is about moving from charitable work to true justice.
They have also worked to help start a group study course at UCSD, “Contemporary Issues in Global Health,” facilitated byDr. Ivan Evans. It is a survey of major topics in global health examined through the lens of social justice, and based on its success, will likely again continue this year.
Another important aspect of the program in Guatemala is a youth leadership and scholarship program. While many of the youth in Rabinal are intelligent, passionate and hard-working, they face multiple barriers to the education they need to gain the skills to bring health care to their community. Because of this, Voces y Manos began to develop a leadership and scholarship program in 2008, focused on providing basic training and connecting them with the resources needed to further their education.
The first step in the process is to get young men and women recommended by their teachers at the local high school, Fundacion Nueva Esperanza, to go through a health education and leadership curriculum. During the program, they
develop their own community health project based on what they think the needs of their area are. If they complete it, the youth are then given a scholarship to attend school for a health or education-related field.
Currently, there are 14 youths in the program, with an additional ten expected to join in the upcoming summer. In addition to the youths in the program, Voces y Manos is giving a supplementary scholarship to Edelman, a young man from Rabinal currently in medical school at Medical School of the Americas in Cuba. His grades and dedication were enough to earn him a full-tuition scholarship, but because his family could not afford any of his expenses, Voces y Manos is helping pay for his living and travel costs. He is looking forward to returning to Rabinal as one of the few indigenous doctors once his education is completed.
Michael Bakal, now a UCSD alum teaching Biology in Watts, continues to dedicate his time to the program. His excitement about working together for a global vision of health is evident, “Voces y Manos brings people of all ages and all backgrounds together to make health a reality, and to demand the right to health for all.”
This upcoming summer, Voces y Manos will again be returning to Rabinal to do health fairs, research, trainings, and continuing the youth leadership program. They hope to bring more doctors this year to participate in the health fairs and to facilitate trainings with local doctors and community health workers. Another goal is to bring volunteers with research backgrounds so they can concentrate more on research. Volunteers with conversational Spanish skills in all backgrounds are welcome, not just those interested in the health care or education field. Donations are also gladly accepted throughout the year.
For more information about the program, to find out how to become a volunteer, or to donate, check out their website at