Published April 12, 2013
Spring break is the week most college students trade in their textbooks for beachwear. But Emily Fiore, a UB senior majoring in anthropology and biology, passed on the swimsuit and opted for a trowel instead.
Along with 11 other UB students, Fiore traveled to the mountains of Honduras and, without a single power tool, built showers, water storage units, bathrooms, eco-stoves and cement floors for a small community.
Not your typical spring break.
The group traveled to Honduras as members of UB’s first Global Brigades Public Health Chapter. The Global Brigades is the world’s largest student-led, worldwide health and sustainable development organization and has sent thousands of college students to volunteer in such nations as Nicaragua, Panama and Ghana.
Public Health is one of nine Global Brigades programs that address needs in health and economic development. Public Health Brigades combats common illnesses by improving the overall infrastructure of homes, a factor that studies show leads to high levels of preventable diseases. Other programs focus on water, microfinance and architecture.
Fiore, who serves as UB chapter president, and Jesse Hanchett, a senior biomedical science major and chapter vice president, organized the UB chapter in fall 2012 after completing volunteer trips overseas to impoverished communities.
“Travelling to China and the Philippines exposed me to both inequality and the lack of justice in the world. I wanted to expose 11 more people to that,” says Fiore. “After you experience that, you have to want to help. It’s not possible for you to turn away.”
Hanchett also identifies with the people he helps.
“Opening one’s mind to the world for what it is,” he says, “that’s the first step that anyone can take to right these wrongs and recognize these forgotten places and people for what they are: us.”
In the Philippines, Fiore worked in a neonatal clinic where a stethoscope was the most expensive piece of equipment, the recovery room was a cardboard bed and staff washed and reused latex gloves. During her stay, Fiore delivered three babies by herself.
Fiore’s certification as an emergency medical technician did not prepare her for the shocking experience with health care outside of the U.S. However, the experience inspired her to help again, this time in El Jute, a rural Honduran town.
The UB students worked side by side with two families and students from other universities, remodeling homes and teaching dental hygiene to children at local schools.
The construction was led by local masons hired by the Global Brigades, who guided students through the projects. But even with their help, the work was no easy task. Fiore spent most of her time laying cement floors, while Hanchett built the eco-stoves.
“We had to mix cement by hand, and let me tell you, I will never be annoyed by a cement truck slowing me down on the highway again,” says Fiore.
Although Fiore only knew the families for a week, she will never forget them. The language barrier between the two groups did not prevent a bond from being formed.
“With the family, it’s what wasn’t said that I will remember,” says Fiore. “It’s so rare that you come into someone’s life and change it entirely in just a week. That’s something that you can’t put into words.”
UB’s Global Brigades Public Health Chapter plans to visit Ghana for its next brigade.
As a UB grad, I am so proud to read this story. I have accompanied a similar trip organized by my son, also a UB grad, to a small village in El Salvador. They have returned seven straight years, bringing high schoolers with them. I've made the trip three times and continue to be amazed that, ultimately, the travelers gain more from the trip than the villagers do. Yes, the villagers have huge life improvements as a result of the efforts to upgrade their homes and surroundings, but the impact on the students is life-changing in some cases. It's definitely a win/win situation and one where everyone can hold their heads high. Congratulations and I hope this effort continues for years to come.