DGH Live Blog: Workshop, “Volunteering Internationally: Process, Ethics, & Community Perspectives”  

Facilitated by Colleen Lynch, volunteered in Santa Marta.


Positives and pitfalls of volunteering


Large scale and severity of need, commitment to equality, fresh perspective on a problem, energy and motivation, fun and enriching to travel

Great things can be accomplished - examples:

Trostan - decreasing frequency of FGM

Hope through Health - HIV care in Togo




Problems are often complex - and we don’t give things that amount of credit that they deserve (example: someone coming from another country to fix the US gun problem)

Idea of the “white savior”

Causing unintended/unanticipated problems with a proposed solution (example - TOMS shoe company put local shoemakers out of business)

Potential shifts in resources

Cultural misunderstanding - need time and humility to understand

Exceeding level of training - medical students mistaken for physicians

Lack of informed consent on social media/photography (often lower threshold of acceptability than in the US)


Some guidelines (see posted picture):

Reason out the need for the need.

Don’t go because you’ve fallen in love with solvability.

Go because you’ve fallen in love with complexity

Don’t go because you want to talk, go because you want to listen.


DGH volunteer process and IVC - their process

Mission: To improve health and foster other human rights with those most in need by accompanying communities, while educating and inspiring others to action

Only go to communities where invited

Partnership, long-term relationships

Participatory problem solving


Partner community sites:

Oaxaca, Mexico - “Rural communities on the Path” o Comunidades Campesino en Camino (CCC) - building a community health promoter program, providing Integrative and Traditional Mexican Medicine

Chiapas, Mexico - Dr. Juan Manual Canales - community health worker training project in the Zapatista communities, as well as working alongside physicians in the Hospital San Carlos

Estancia, El Salvador - ‘Peasants for Human Development’ o Campesinos para el Desarrollo Humano (CDH) provides primary care services, support for patients who need specialty care, a nutrition program called the Seven Seeds, public health projects, early education, and youth development to prevent gang recruitment

Santa Marta, El Salvador - Center for Rehabilitation, Comite Contra Sida (Cocosi), & Psychology project to heal trauma - various different programs focusing on rehabilitation/PT/yoga therapy, HIV/repro health/gender spectrum education and outreach, and group work to heal trauma

Kisoro, Uganda - partnership with Montefiore to staff a local hospital and community health promoter program


Applying to Volunteer with DGH - the application is on the website!

You must have language proficiency

We look for long term volunteers, really with a 3 month minimum, (1 month allowed at times)

You should understand the principles of DGH

The IVC (International Volunteer Committee) reviews and connects applicants to communities, also reviews and completes exit evaluations


Reading list: to come...


Panel Q and A (recent volunteers and community members that receive volunteers)

Recent volunteers:

Megan DeBell - (volunteered in Chiapas in 2007, and in Oaxaca in 2014) family physician in Seattle, compelled to volunteer by desire to connect with other folks, learn Spanish, learn more about immigrant story

Sara Vasquez - (volunteered in Chiapas in 2015) family physician from Tuscon, Arizona - quit her job as an HIV provider due to burnout, needed to refocus/recenter - has spent a lot of time with HIV work, wanted to also work along the border or volunteer internationally - looked for opportunity to volunteer - wanted to reconnect with heart/soul of medicine, was connected to DGH through a colleague

Molly Zielenbach - (volunteered in Oaxaca in 2016) ob/gyn resident in Chicago, had volunteered in the past and reflected on the ways in which is was problematic (see above), wanted to do so responsibly and with the public health perspective after completing her MPH

Most challenging/interesting aspects of volunteering?

Molly: different pace of medical life/culture outside the US, challenging to adapt at times

Megan: adapting to a different medical culture and a different country’s culture - “What is my roll? What’s DGH’s roll?”

Sara: felt a lot of time feeling unsure and awkward at first, not knowing resources, different way of practicing medicine also, cultural adjustment of living outside global economy, some language barriers with indigenous language

What are you most proud of?

Sara: students she worked with were interested in medical sub-specialties and she tried to impress upon them the importance of primary care, learned some of indigenous language

Megan: building relationships and friendships, mutually inspiring relationships

Molly: the relationships she was able to build with everyone at CCC, lived in the office space - worked and socialized with colleagues. Cooking skills!


This was a medical focused volunteer group but we take ALL types of volunteers!


Community Members:

Linnea Capps - not a community member but works in Chiapas and has worked there for 20 years, and has worked in Uganda for last 7 years as well

Ramiro Cortez - La Estancia, El Salvador CCC

Piter Nataren - Santa Marta, El Salvador

Piter - Santa Marta, has worked with many volunteers. Receive volunteers and customize what they can do to what needs there are in the community. Have had different international agencies come there, everything is focused on things we need, like technical support. Through DGH young doctors have helped build up clinical work - which was something, education was also an area that we needed to develop - have volunteers from Spain, Germany, and US to help form

Ramiro - we’ve had many volunteers, some have helped us make plans to build and develop projects, volunteers have to get used to a different way of being - new culture, poor transportation, different food, etc. but this allows for improved education

Linnea - DGH has offered unique philosophy and facilitated ability to work with Zapatista communities, Dr Juan Manuel really led the way in this respect. Continue to reject Mexican gov’t healthcare system, but DGH and Juan Manuel help with things like vaccines and other health campaigns - help them remain in resistance to Mexican gov’t


Have you ever had an experience where a volunteer is damaging to the community? Why do you think this happened? Examples?

Ramiro - “We work with all the volunteers, we haven’t had any problems that we haven’t been able to talk about.” They bring their skills and they are very pleased and happy with the experiences.

Linnea - doesn’t know of any problems with working in the hospital or other volunteers, haven’t really had any problems because of the trust that has been built, mainly through Juan Manuel


What makes an outstanding volunteer?

Piter: They need to have a  good, strong conscious. Sometimes after they come volunteer and return home, they start doing their work differently. Sometimes they live with family, need to eat what family eats, build relationships. Need to understand that the situation in a country can be very complicated, it’s not easy. One needs to pay attention to the rules and way of being in a country.

Ramiro: Knowing the history of the country, where you will be and understand - have a guide, really know the community. To be successful, really knowing about the work, the language. Be positive, be open to experiences and understanding.

Linnea: Listen first. Be humble. DGH principles.


Questions from audience:

Lanny - Thanks community representatives and volunteers. One of the things he’s been asked is to try to get a volunteer who goes abroad to then also volunteer locally as well. Volunteering beyond your expertise may also include social and community skills. The times he’s seen people do damage is where people did not act with respect regarding relationships. Anybody who is being a volunteer around the world, think really hard before you do things that you wouldn’t want someone to do to your brother or sister (this is true anywhere, but especially true if you are volunteering)

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