Students Lend a Hand in the Amazon with Reforestation and Health Outpost Renovation Projects

If freshman Greg Zahner wanted confirmation about becoming a doctor, he got it. In the Amazon with a handful of classmates from the 5-C Rotaract Club, healthcare disparities in developing countries were distressingly plain. “The medical disaster in Loreto makes the problems with our healthcare system look like child’s play,” Zahner recalls of Peru’s largest and northernmost region. Those challenges made an impression on Zahner and the five other CMCers who flew to the Amazon for the club’s first international service project.

Helen Pollock ’11, Amanda Lam ’11, Takako Mino ’11, Elizabeth Ward ’10, and Kathryn Leonnig ’12, all members of the Rotaract Club of The Claremont Colleges, were with Zahner just north of Iquitos, the largest city in the Peruvian rainforest, for two weeks in January. Traveling down the Amazon by boat, they helped villagers plant trees and repair a health outpost. They also visited the pediatric ward of a hospitalefforts all coordinated by APECA, Inc. (Association Promoting Education and Conservation in Amazonia), a nonprofit that is helping rainforest communities become healthier and self-sufficient.

Although conservation and preservation of the rainforest is the real backbone of its mission, pollution, disease, and malnutrition are among the reasons for APECA’s longer-term stabilization efforts in the Amazon.

“My interest in traveling to Peru was the public health focus of APECA,” says Kathryn Leonnig ’12, who is considering a career in public health. “Public health is concerned with populations, not individuals, and it is not about treatment of illness, but focuses on prevention. A doctor treats malaria with medicine,” Leonnig says. “A public health worker helps a community learn about ways it can reduce the chances its community members will contract the illness Traveling to Peru allowed me to learn more about the health challenges in rural communities.”

The challenges resonate from paper to paper. After returning to the United States, the students each wrote about what they saw and how it impacted them, and stitched together a photo album.

In the pediatric ward of an under-funded hospital in Iquitos, they recalled children battling such maladies as malnutrition and parasites, machete wounds, and, in some cases, facing uncertain delays in surgeries because their families couldn’t pay for surgical supplies. The students also noted that in some small villages, the cost of a shirt was equal to a day and a half’s wages for the average workermaking villagers more worried about feeding and clothing families than getting check-ups. And in all of their reports, CMCers commented on the spotty existence of health posts in communities, which rely, when they do exist, on unpaid workers who’ve been trained in basic care.

Broken bones, surgeries, and other emergencies must be treated at the nearest hospitala commute by boat of up to two hours for some, and as long as a week for others. In short, they conclude, many of the villagers go without any medical care whatsoever.

“The health outpost project was by far the most rewarding, because we were able to immerse ourselves in a community, get to know the people living there, and provide them with a significant service,” says Rotaract President Helen Pollock ’11. “The entire club wanted to work as much as possible, and we didn’t feel like tourists when we were involved in a hands-on project.”

“The experience in Peru actually inspired several of the students to pursue future attempts, perhaps even careers, to alleviate circumstances like these that exist in some third-world countries,” says Candace Adelberg ’10, Rotaract’s vice president for professional development.

And in the midst of what many consider to be the crisis of global warming, Adelberg says maintaining the Earth’s rainforests is imperative for socially responsible leaders in the making. “The reforestation project gave these students an excellent opportunity to start a project which will persist, as well as educate village children about the importance of conservation.”

The international service trip was the first one organized by the Rotaract Club of The Claremont Colleges, with funding from the offices of the President, the Dean of Students, Kravis Leadership Institute, and Rotaract Club fundraising.

Rotaract is affiliated with Rotary International, one of the oldest and most eminent community and international service organizations. The Rotaract Club of the Claremont Colleges is open to all 5C students, and meets Sundays at 9 p.m. in the Hub.

For more information on APECA: http://www.apecaperu.com/.