Summer Reflections by Suellen Li

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This summer, I went to Honduras with a team of Duke Project HEAL volunteers and partnered with Un Mundo to tackle reproductive health issues in the Cangrejal Valley. We spent some time gathering information first, talking to local health professionals and other organizations in the area, and learned that far too many teenage mothers didn’t know how they got pregnant. For example, one girl had been told by her parents that babies came from helicopters, a modern twist on the age-old delivery stork myth. We tried to address these knowledge gaps by developing a curriculum on pregnancy, sexual health, and domestic violence—topics that are not commonly discussed in the community.

Our main goal this summer was to create a sustainable health education program. We recruited local volunteers and trained them so that they could serve as community health promoters. Working with these women turned out to be one of the most inspirational and humbling experiences of my life. We had set up health talks throughout the village for the women to present and raise awareness about these topics in their community. Our role was supposed to be as facilitators, helping out when our volunteers forgot information or got discouraged. Before our first session, I wasn’t sure what to expect—the women had been extremely nervous, telling me “I can’t do it, I’m not a good teacher. Why can’t you just teach them instead?”

However, I watched as the women grew increasingly confident with experience, empowered through their new role as community leaders. Many of them were single mothers or victims of domestic violence, dealing with oppressive economic or household situations. Yet, when they got in front of the audience to speak, they transformed. A former teen mother cautioned the girls in the audience against repeating her mistakes and jeopardizing their education by getting pregnant. Another woman shared the story of a relative who died of cervical cancer and left her children without a caretaker because she didn’t go for regular medical check-ups. Another day, I sat back with tears in my eyes when one woman stood up and gave a powerful speech about her experiences with domestic violence to inspire and support others suffering in similar situations.

These women humbled me in more ways than one. After just a week, the health promoters that I had trained were doing a much more effective job at impacting and educating everyone than I ever could. Nothing was more powerful than having someone from the community who had personally lived through an experience talk to others about it, and I realized that these women were teaching me far more than I had taught them. In addition, hearing their stories gave me even more respect for all that they had been through. One had lived in the U.S. for several years after being adopted by a local family there, but had her residency status suddenly revoked and was deported back to Honduras, abruptly separating her from her three children. My host mom had single-handedly raised and supported her 10 kids through school after her husband left them one day without any warning, or resources.

Living with my host family made me realize that poverty was a constant limiting factor and that for the poor, money almost always mattered more than merit. This shattered my conviction that success came to the deserving, and that everyone could make it as long as they worked hard enough. My host sisters always referred to their future schooling in hypothetical terms, “if we have the money for tuition,” they would say. Money was a constant consideration—bottled water was a luxury, the refrigerator was turned off at night to save energy, and everything possible was recycled or reused. As an environmental sciences & policy major, I realized the extent of my own hypocrisy when I compared my consumption habits to the low-impact lifestyle that my host family led.

Yet, in the face of so much inequality and structural violence, the people I met remained positive and kept persevering. They were grateful for what they had, and never once complained about what they did not. They were generous with what little they did have, sharing their home, food, and laughter with a complete stranger. They were fascinated by the outside world, looking with interest but not jealousy at the photos I had brought from my travels, at places they would never get the chance to visit. They were curious about other cultures, and listened attentively when I taught them how to write in Chinese, fold dumplings, and make origami. They were uncertain about whether or not they could continue to pay tuition, but they continued to study.

When I reflected on my own background, I saw all of the opportunities and privileges that I had failed to notice before in a new light. I didn’t realize how lucky I was that I never had to contribute to the family income and or have my educational future threatened by financial concerns. How difficult could my life had been if I could always count on having consistent running water, electricity, and food? How could I complain about having to study when I never had to fight for the privilege of going to college?

The people I met had overcome obstacles that I could not imagine ever facing in my own life, and had a wisdom and strength that years of college education could not have given me. While I would not have considered myself blind to disparities before, living and working so closely with the community this summer opened my eyes in a way that my teaching experiences in the past had not. These people inspired me every day with their strength, and made me even more passionate about fighting against the inequalities they faced, health-related or otherwise.


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