Reflections on community service through iCHEE

I am so grateful for the opportunity to participate in this program. The experience was eye-opening in so many ways. I grew up in Portland and I didn’t know that such a place like the VOZ Work Center existed. I always had an interest in global health and working with the underserved. Through iCHEE I learned that the underserved are not just in Africa or Asia or third world countries. There are people who need help right here in one of the most developed country in the world. We don’t need to travel to another country to volunteer our services because our services are needed most in our state, in our city, and in our neighborhood.

I remember the first time arriving at the VOZ center feeling very nervous and scared. I see twenty or so Hispanic men standing around chatting. As I walk toward them to the garage where we were going to be doing the health screens, I can feel their eyes on me. I felt out of place and intimidated by these rugged looking men stooping over me as I am only a 5 foot tall Asian woman. I let out a sigh of relief as I found three other students and we stood together separated from the people we were there to help.

As the day grew on, I was moved by each of our clients’ story. They are one of the most courageous and determined men I have ever met. The distance, time, risks, danger, hard-work, and self sacrifice they had to overcome to be able to get to the United States was tremendous. Most of them have families back in their native countries and whatever money they made was sent back home to support their wives and children. As they tell us their stories and backgrounds, some were in tears. From this, I knew that these rugged men had a soft, caring, loving side to them but the physical and emotional hardships they have to weather through had hardened them. I felt honored for them to let me see their vulnerability and what they hold so deeply.

Fast forward 5 weeks, it was the last time we’ll be here at the VOZ center. As I walked up to it, I was greeted left and right by these Hispanic men that I so feared the first time I was here. I greeted them back, smiled, and sometimes even stopped to chat for a minute with one or two of them with the small amount of Spanish I’ve learned over the past few weeks. I felt welcomed, happy to have heard their stories, and knew that I have tried my best to help them with a small aspect of their lives, their health. These men have taught me more than I have helped them.

Another aspect of iCHEE is working with other health professionals as a team. By working with other dental, nursing, pharmacy, and dietetic students, I have gained new perspectives and respect for each individual fields of health care. Each of us brought a small skill-set to the team to function as a whole. From others, I’ve learned to give a dental exam, gained knowledge about specific drugs and their side effects, be resourceful, and find resources and clinics for our clients. More importantly, one of our team member played a crucial role in our ability to communicate with the clients. She was the only person to speak Spanish and we had to communicate through her. This made me realized I need to learn Spanish and as many other languages as I can. The ability to speak to someone, have them understand us, and us understand them create a more open, understanding, and intimate environment.

Overall, my experience with the VOZ center through iCHEE was incredible and empowering. iCHEE brought me out of my comfort zone and not only helped me grow stronger as a person but also thrive in a changing environment. No doubt this experience will have a lasting impact on the rest of my career as a health care provider. I would recommend this elective to anyone who can keep an open mind and heart and be willing to step out of their comfort zone to cross cultural barriers.