Written by Roxana Moritz, Global Brigades Program Associate in Panama
After 8 years away, we recently returned to the community that hosted the first ever Medical Brigade in Panama in 2009: El Peñón, Veraguas!
Global Brigades CEO and Co-Founder, Shital Vora, traveled to El Peñón with students from the CUNY Sophie Davis School of Medicine for the Medical Brigade in Panama 10 years ago. She recounts how Global Brigades partnered with an organization called Club 20-30 and an amazing doctor named Dr. Vladimir. El Peñón was identified because it was high need and difficult access. Dr. Vladimir coordinated with the Panamanian Ministry of Health to bring nurses and vaccinations for the families who attended the clinics.
In 2009, getting to El Peñón was a difficult journey. Volunteers and all their supplies were shuttled up the mountainous dirt road in trucks and an ambulance. They stayed in the community, cooking over wood fires and sleeping on mattresses in the school by lantern-light. El Peñón is an indigenous Ngöbe-Buglé community, so many of the families did not speak Spanish. Dr. Vladimir, Shital, and the volunteers overcame the communication challenge and provided clinics for hundreds of patients from El Peñón and the surrounding communities. Global Brigades continued working in the province of Veraguas until 2011 and then decided to shift its focus to the Eastern regions of Panama and develop the Holistic Model.
In January 2019, Global Brigades returned to El Peñón to facilitate the creation of a Community Bank. The road to El Peñón is now paved all the way up the mountain and the community has electricity and a truly impressive school. When GB’s Monitoring & Evaluation team visited in February, there were representatives at the meeting from the Community Bank, the water committee, the school committee, the health committee, and the cultural committee. They were organized and ready for opportunities to improve the quality of life in their gorgeous mountaintop community.
El Peñón is a testament to how quickly positive change can happen when organizations and individuals invest in a community’s sustainable development. A lot has changed for El Peñón in the last few years and they’re not about to slow down any time soon. They now have a health center outpost, but healthcare professionals aren’t always able to keep it stocked with medications or attend all the patients who seek treatment there. This means residents of El Peñón must travel to the provincial capital for health care, which, even with the new road, can often prove too far or too expensive. Community members expressed these challenges to Global Brigades, and we immediately started planning with them to return with Medical Brigades.
We’re happy to say that this past May, volunteers from Florida Gulf Coast University were able to host their clinic in El Peñón! Luisa Rodriguez, the President of Florida Gulf Coast University Medical Brigades Chapter, described the brigade like this:
“This brigade was an unforgettable, life-changing experience. The people of El Peñón were so kind, humble, and happy. Their dresses were almost as bright as their smiles. I could see in their eyes how nervous yet thankful they were to be able to have a clinic of this kind. A clinic where they didn’t need to take their wallet out and pay up front. A clinic where the care, love, medical and dental service was all free. Simply put, it was my greatest honor to serve them in the best way I could.
I remember meeting a young woman, about 18 years old, who had walked two hours with her 15-day-old child. I was inspired by her and so many others who had walked even five hours, rain or shine. There was need in this community, and I am so thankful that I was able to help through Global Brigades. I served this community with 34 other students and I can’t wait to see Global Brigades continue to make a change.”
Generina Mendoza, the President of the El Peñón Community Bank, attended the clinic and had this to say about the brigade: “I am very grateful and happy because it’s rare that foreigners come all the way here to hold medical clinics. All of the medication and attention from the doctors was free, which is a big help for families in need here in the indigenous communities. The volunteers were very friendly and polite. I hope that more clinics come in the future so more people can attend! We are already seeing the benefits in El Peñón from working with Global Brigades.”
We are so thrilled to continue our partnership with this inspiring community. If you want to be a part of a rural Panamanian community’s story, join a Medical Brigade to Panama this year!